Songs & Poems of the inland waterways

As I’ve continued to work on my short film, I’ve be researching sound archives with the hope of finding some historic sounds to sample. What’s been particularly interesting is how these works reveal stories of everyday life on the canal that is scant in detail in official histories.

Songs of a navvy by MacGill, Patrick, 1890- , source: archive.org

The book Songs of a Navvy (Patrick MacGill (1911), Windsor) is available from archive.org (https://archive.org/details/songsofnavvy00macgiala/page/n7/mode/2up) and includes some poignant writing:

Another resource found was the website Songs of the Inland Waterways (http://www.waterwaysongs.info/index.html), which includes the lyrics of many canal songs, along with some recordings. I wrote to the website owner, to thank him for the resource, in particular a 1975 recording by the BBC that includes some oral histories as well as songs and sounds from the canal when it was operated commercially.

I’ve sampled some of the sounds and added them to the next version of my film – this adds to the melancholy of the work but linking to the past and highlighting a place that once was an artery of the Industrial Revolution as a now marginal place. I hope that this will make viewers reflect on impermanence the acceptance of change.

Specificity of media

Emma Bee Berstein’s essay for the The Chicago School of Media Theory discusses medium-specificity in terms of the materiality and form in which are is made (https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/medium-specificity/). I’ve often thought of this in terms of physicality and form, for example the mark of an acrylic painter or the sounds of poetry. Photography has always been a chameleon in this respect because of its malleability and it being such a broad church. Berstein comments that it had difficult in establishing itself as an art form because it wasn’t treated by its proponents as a specific media but attempted to mimic painting for example. There are ‘artists working with photography’ who’s work is a hybrid of a traditional photograph and other mark-making. With digitisation the pixel has become the common media of digital art and photography and the blurring of boundaries stronger than in the past. With digitisation also comes the malleability of output – there is flexibility at the press of a few keys. This is the aspect I’m interested in for this post.

I’ve been wrestling with the form of an ebook for my body of work and while enjoyed experimenting with the possibilities it didn’t quite feel right – I couldn’t escape the idea of a paper photobook. Adding interactivity disrupted that quiet space that is a paper book, taking away the possibilities of interaction left a pale imitation of a photobook an its materiality. My tutor made an important observation as I ran through the ebook during our last meeting. She said, ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at here; is it a book or a slide show’. We talked around this and I also commented that I was not enthusiastic about the ‘virtual degree’ shows I’d seen – they made it difficult to see the work and pretended to offer an experience akin to a gallery when in fact it was more like a virtual car show room on low budget tech. Perhaps an ephotobook is similar. My tutor suggested that a ‘film’ might be a better format. I’ve reflected a lot on this and agree – we understand the specificity of film and are not distracted by wondering what it is. One day, the same might be true of photo ebooks but that possibility needs a change in technology too.

All of this has encouraged me to think about specificity of other outputs for photography. I wrote about Instagram here but having worked a little with it, watched established photographers, galleries and publishers, I’ve changed by mind in some respects. I thought it was a good idea to maintain the original frame of the photograph, including it within a 1080×1080 or 1080×1350 pixel box if necessary. However, I now realise that the specificity of the output is a small mobile phone screen with limited pixel dimensions and format determined by the app. Unless the most is made of the 1:1 or 4:5 aspect’s space, viewing is not comfortable for many photographs. There is an incoherence with the specificity of the output.

I’ve deleted my Instagram feed (I don’t keep my photographic history there anyway so not a big deal) and will now only post 1:1 or 4:5 crops. I now think of media-specificity both in terms of input and output.

Dr Ariadne on Contextual Studies

I enjoyed a very useful tutor lead work group yesterday evening. The discussion focused on what makes a good CS submission, including making appropriate uses of supporting materials (ie theory and other references). It covered thinking that is absent from the CS course materials and possibly the OCA’s current approach to teaching research. Dr Ariadne Xenou is an OCA assessor and moderator amongst roles in other institutions. A sign that any advice is to be highly valued. While late in the day for me, it will still be useful as I work on the final adjustments to my CS work.

The most important points for me:

  • The ‘first and last things looked for in CS submissions are cohesion and coherence.’ That the work flows and is carried by a main thread, and that it makes sense.
  • The use and value of supporting materials was discussed at length. I have found it difficult at times to avoid the weight of supporting voices drowning out my own and I think this still needs further work in my final edit. A common issue in submissions is sources replacing the writer’s own voice. Whereas they should be used to amplify the voice by adding a chorus or making it stand out by offering a counterpoint; using an opposing voice to make one’s own point.
  • When using sources it was recommended to introduce the context and person, bring in the source and then analyse – this way the writer’s voice comes through. The same approach is suggested when using images – treat them as a different form of text.
  • Ensure that theory is not used to tick boxes – it should be part of the design of the argument.
  • Finally, I raised the question of bibliographies (so research examined but not referenced) as my current draft does not include a bibliography. No definitive answer was offered in the context of the OCA but their value through their influence on thinking was noted. Concluded that it is unlikely that one would be penalised for including one, and it could always be ignored by the assessor if they weren’t interested in it.

There was a slight diversion in to Literature reviews versus dissertations. Noted that key is to engage in why the resources are useful, but that it is not necessary to develop an argument around them.

Expert feedback on the canal as a heterotopia

I’m grateful to Peter Johnson (a leading expert in heterotopias) for sharing his thoughts on the canal as a heterotopia (original post here) . Peter replied through my question on his blog (https://www.heterotopiastudies.com/art-inspired-by-heterotopia/), which I’ve quoted below.

He suggested that the barge might be more fruitful than the canal for a study of heterotopia, which I understand. I’m not necessarily interested in making a study of heterotopia and it’s enough for the ideas that underpin it to help with my thinking. But Peter’s comments are helpful in guiding me to avoid stretching the meaning of heterotopia to fit the canal and confirm my earlier doubts about using it directly as a reference.

Blog extract – Peter Johnson

Peter, thank you for maintaining this fantastic resource. I’m a very mature student in my final year BA (Hons) Photography and came across the word heterotopia in an article on a photography project, Fordlândia (https://americansuburbx.com/2020/06/jm-ramirez-suassi-fordlandia-interview.html?goal=0_1ed269ba08-36e91063d6-204573077&mc_cid=36e91063d6&mc_eid=36a150e9ca) – from there I soon arrived at your website. My photographic body of work is concerned with the deindustrialised Leeds & Liverpool canal as a contested space and I’ve found the ideas in heterotopia helpful in articulating what draws me to the space. However, I’m interested to know whether you would consider the canal a heterotopia. I’ve put a short post on my study blog with my thoughts (https://oca3.fitzgibbonphotography.com/is-the-canal-a-heterotopia-and-is-the-label-helpful/) and if you are willing, I’d love to hear what you think.

REPLY

 Andrew Fitzgibbon July 3, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

  •  Peter Johnson July 8, 2020 @ 10:39 amHi Andrew, thanks for getting in touch. Your project sounds very interesting. I will look at your blog, have a think and get back to you. PeterREPLY
  •  Peter Johnson July 13, 2020 @ 5:09 pmHi again The article by Diane Morgan might be helpful. It’s about the changing role of a barge on the Seine. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304550152_The_Floating_Asylum_the_Armee_du_salut_and_Le_CorbusierI think concentrating on canal boats rather than canals generally would be more productive in terms of heterotopia, although you cannot have one without the other! They have different uses (work, home, garden, play, shop …); they change use and appearance; they hide secrets perhaps. They are private but at same time they are often by public walking paths, cycle paths, very exposed. There is also a sense of freedom but at the same time you are part of a very rigid system. Certainly worth pursuing. best wishes PeterREPLY
    •  Andrew Fitzgibbon July 15, 2020 @ 12:12 pmHi and thanks Peter. The article was useful. I don’t find the boats interesting for image making and they are very difficult to access in these strange times! I see what you mean and how they would make an interesting heterotopic study for someone out there. Regardless, I’ve found some of the ideas of heterotopia useful in thinking about social constructed spaces more broadly. Best, Andrew.

Is the canal a heterotopia and is the label helpful?

Since reading JM Ramírez-Suassi: Fordlândia Interview – Heterotopia, I’ve been mulling over the concept of heterotopias and doing some further research. Academic, Peter Johnson’s website is an excellent resource, containing his own essays, critical reviews and signposts to Michel Foucault’s original writings and explanations of heterotopias.

My draft dissertation examines how meaning is formed in the context of space and the social importance of meaning. It uses various narratives of the canal to illustrate a contested space and how dominant narratives shape the understanding of it. However, I’m still wrestling a little with the structure of the essay. It is centred around a conceptual thesis relating to ‘meaning’, with the canal positioned to illustrate; the concept before the concrete perhaps. My CS tutor observed that it would be better centred around the canal and its specifics, with the conceptual trailing . As I’ve returned to my BoW and the materiality of the canal’s space, this suggestion feels more important than it did when my head was in books and theory. It would breath more life into the writing. It could be that the ideas in Foucault’s heterotopia help me bridge the gap between the concept of meaning and the materiality of space; laying the ground for a restructuring of the dissertation. It may also help articulate my feelings about my BoW and its relation to the dissertation.

From my reading of Foucault’s Of other Spaces and Peter Johnson’s materials, I consider heterotopia and the canal. Underlines denote Foucault’s characteristics of heterotopias:

Johnson observes that Foucault doesn’t closely define heterotopia and so it is open to interpretation (and misinterpretation). I’m only concerned with how the ideas might apply to the Leeds & Liverpool canal that is the basis of my photography body of work. That is, heterotopia as an ‘enacted utopia in which the real sites, … are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’ (Foucault). I understand this as discrete sites brought together in the place of heterotopia, which sits outside of society but reflects that society. To me, the canal brings together sites along its route, yet is obscured from society by its embankments and screening trees, with limited entry and exit points. Heterotopia has diverse forms; the example of a train as an ‘extraordinary bundle of [spacial] relations’ as something that one goes through, goes from one place to another, and also goes by. It is the strangeness of the spatial relations along the canal that draws me to it – its watery materiality carries us along its flow and moves us between sites. It is a deindustrialised highway of another time but has mutated and is represented as place of leisure where ‘life is better by the water’ and celebrities go barging. The materiality of the Leeds & Liverpool canal ‘juxtaposes in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible‘ (Foucault). Making-do in the aftermath of deindustrialisation, gentrification, second homes on boats, only homes due to unaffordability of conventional housing, a place of leisure, a place of work, a place of history, a place of heritage. And so on. At over 200 years old, the canal ‘encapsulate[s] temporal discontinuity [and] accumulation.’ Foucault outlines further characteristics that I’m unsure apply to the canal:a) ‘presuppose an ambivalent system of rituals related to opening/closing and entry/exit’ – arguably this applies to boaters and the locks, but I’m not so sure about general use of the canal. b) ‘function in relation to the remaining space, for example, as illusion or compensation’ – a place of leisure?

I wouldn’t presume to state the canal is a heterotopia, but the ideas seems to help unpick its meaning and interest as a place. I’m unsure that I would want to use the term in the context of my BoW as it wouldn’t be widely understood and therefore, its main purpose would be to add the weight of an academic reference. However, some of the thinking expressed could be useful in explaining the place of the canal.

References

Benjamin’s detritus

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ & photo of Walter Benjamin, source: Versobooks.com

My BoW tutor suggested that I might find Walter Benjamin’s references to the ‘ragpicker’ and ‘the angel of history’ of interest in the context of my images showing the remains of the industrialisation along the canal.

The ragpicker, lived in rags and made a living from the discarded rags of consumer society, sitting at the foot of the material ladder. Benjamin suggested that the way to understand history, from the ‘refuse and ‘detritus’, through chance rather than the formality of a historian . He used the ragpicker as an analogy. I can see that this relates to how I’m photographing the canal, even if ragpickers no longer exist in the original C19th sense of the word. It’s not that there isn’t poverty, it’s that waste collection is highly organised as is recycling and charitable giving. The wandering ragpickers are also analogous to psychogeographers, who picking through the myths and histories of urban landscape. While it is a good analogy, it is an analogy from a different time, which reduces its currency.

Benjamin acquired Klee’s drawing Angelus Novus and considered it amongst his most precious possession, seemingly treating it as a muse. He referred to it during several writings but most profoundly in this passage from Theses on the Philosophy of History:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

An interesting thing about the backwater of the canal is that the storm of progress does not erase traces of the past so thoroughly as in other urban environments that are built over – some canals have been filled-in but many remain, often sited away from the main routes through places. The industry has gone but the canals stand as monuments to deindustrialisation and accolades to making-do. The storm of progress comes to some places with the gentrification and privatisation of places along the canal banks.

References

THE IMAGE – pseudo-events

As my writing on ‘meaning’ of the canal has progressed, I’ve increasingly thought about the malleability of meaning and the challenges of seeing fact through fiction.

I today revisited Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book, The Image | a guide to pseudo-events in America . It struck me that despite the age of the book, its ideas are perhaps even more relevant today than they were 60 years ago. Boorstin refers to the ‘graphic revolution’ – capacity to mass produce images in the media and through film as the enabler of his pseudo-events. Today the effect has been amplified through the rapid and vast exchange of digital images.

Central to Boorstin’s idea is ‘a thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life’, created through illusions of imagery that people are willing to accept / not question because of extravagant or excessive expectations of the world. This idea is explored at length through various environments, for example the news, celebrity, tourism.

There are some interesting ideas and eloquent descriptions of so called, pseudo-events and their effects that are relevant to the reading of publicity materials about the canal. There are also photographic specific references, that are of broader interest. I’ve noted these in my research folder and will consider reflecting them in my dissertation.

… the menace of unreality … of replacing ideas by the images … aspiration by the mold. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so “realistic” that they can live in them.

.

References

Industrial Ruins – Space Aesthetics and Materiality

My CS research is mostly housed in my research folder (Zotero based) that sits beyond this blog. This has the obvious benefits of being easily searchable and capturing citation information that can be called directly from Word with the Zotero plugin. So, why spend time posting here?

I’d always planned to make a note of anything particularly noteworthy, that might be included in an update to my literature review assignment (though with a 1,000 word limit that will need to be highly selective). But it now seems the blog is being used to police the level of student engagement – a kind of compliance tool beyond what I require for my own purposes. So, there is another reason to at least periodically post updates here!

I’ve been looking at the idea of industrial heritage and how places that are not maintained as culturally significant ultimately fall to ruin. Ruins are something I’ve always been attracted to – the chaos and non-conformity with regulated space, the layers of time and stories in their decaying fabric. And, I’ve read many of Tim Edensor’s papers on the subject. However, I’ve only now come across his 2005 book, Industrial Ruins – Space Aesthetics and Materiality .

The book is like a bible of industrial ruins, beginning with an introduction that explains Edensor’s passion for the ruined form. What I enjoy most about the book is how it challenges commonplace perceptions of ruins as simply sites of failure that are not worthy of cultural attention (a sign that capitalise ideology has no interest in publicising). It deals with the contemporary uses of ruins, how they disorder space, their materiality and the ‘spaces of memory and ghosts of dereliction’.

It has proven a rich source of ideas for how I might deal with the underrepresented industrial ruins along the canal side.

References

Time Mapping the Canal

Open Canal Map provides and open-source Google Maps overlay for the UK canals . This is an image of the Skipton-Leeds stretch of the canal but the map itself is interactive and allows canal users to add information to the route (Skipton top left and Leeds top of bottom right quarter).

Source: Google Maps / Opencanalmap

In common with all standard maps, there is no time dimension – this is left to the user to estimate based on mode of travel and time of day. The CityMetric explains Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map , which maps places according to 2 hour time blocks of travel by narrowboat on along the canal.

source: CityMetric.com / Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map

Slow TV has been used to offer something of the experience of a real time journey on a canal but doesn’t convey well the distance covered in what seems a long viewing time of 2 hours. However, Chris Clegg’s map reveals that the journey from Skipton to Leeds on a narrowboat would take approximately 14 hours (it takes approximately 1 hour to navigate the Bingley 5 locks rise alone). In contrast the train journey following nearly the same route would take approximately 40 minutes. Perhaps more surprisingly is that it would only take approximately 8.5 hours to walk the route (per Google Maps), though one could not also carry a heavy cargo.

There is something important about this disconnection with contemporary time-distance in the canal experience. It connects us with history – when the canal was built 200 years ago it was considered a vast improvement on alternative modes of transport and spurned the industrial revolution!

It is a dimension to consider while photographing the canal.

References

Meaning as a framing narrative

As work on my essay assignment 4 progresses, it becomes clearer that writing about the canal is a framed story for a broader narrative about finding meaning and understanding.

I’ve just bought a used copy of Stuart Hall’s Representation: cultural representations and signifying Practices and was drawn to Hall’s ‘circuit of culture’

Source: Representation: cultural representations and signifying Practices

Hall discusses the idea of the production and circulation of meaning and the inter-connectedness of the components of his model. I find that his model integrates other concepts I’ve researched (eg semiotics) into something that allows clearer thinking about the complexities of the interrelationship involved in unpicking meaning out in the world. For example how representation can challenge identity if we find ourselves at odds with a particular representation – we sit outside the normal, or become othered.

I will use this model as a basis for analysis during my ongoing work.

References

The problem of the ‘grand narrative’ in analysis of research

I attended another useful tutor-lead video meeting during the week – interesting to hear what others are doing and one fellow student talking about how she is learning about how she learns. I suppose meta-studying.

Grand narrative and micro-narrative are terms that are being used in our meets to discuss CS research themes. I think how we describe things is important to our understanding, and I find these terms problematic in the context of individual research. I think of grand narrative, or metanarrative in the way the term was defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard and described in critical theory (Macey) as a narrative legitimising knowledge in the context of historical events, and claiming to have universal status, explaining all other narratives. A concept that Lyotard rejected through the lens of postmodernist thinking; for example the enlightenment grand narrative, after two world wars and the genocide of the Jews.

I understand the structure that is being described with in research, but don’t relate to the grand descriptors. After some research of my own (and discussion with an author friend), I’ve settled on the terms ‘framing narrative’ and ‘framed stories/narratives’. This also speaks to the ideas of frames of vision and frames of understanding, without suggesting a broader world and historical view.

Quick references

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (s.l.): University of Minnesota Press.
Macey, D. (2001) The Penguin dictionary of critical theory. London ; New York: Penguin Books.
Wolf, W. and Bernhart, W. (2006) Framing Borders in Literature and Other Media. Amsterdam, NETHERLANDS, THE: Editions Rodopi. At: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=556899 (Accessed 17/12/2019).

Ways of Seeing – revisited

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve referred to Berger’s classic during my studies. I revisit it again to consider what I can learn from it in the context of cultural geography – my previous post notes how Berger’s ‘ways of seeing’ was used as a model by Hillary Angelo to examine the shaping of meaning.

The pivotal phrase is ‘The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled’ (p7). Berger uses this as a motif to build his argument throughout the first chapter of the book, crediting Walter Benjamin and his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) as a source for his ideas. It next seems necessary to revisit the source of Hillary Angelo’s source!

The phrase is central to the understanding of the condition of ‘meaning’. It infers that nothing is quite how it seems and that seeing and understanding is a learned cultural experience. However, I question whether this peculiar to visual representation – it seems to pervade all texts and even original perception.

Is it possible to perceive things as they truly are? Or does the perception always say more about the viewer? Does the question even make sense?

The urban lens as a way of seeing

Hillary Angelo’s essay From the city lens toward urbanisation as a way of seeing: Country/city binaries on an urbanising planet draws on Berger’s idea of ‘ways of seeing’ to examine and challenge how landscape is viewed and understood.

It talks about meanings emerging from different places, times and people – importantly with different power, resources and knowledge.

I think there is a useful connection between the visual and the understanding through the ‘way of seeing’ that might be used to build a connection between research and practice. I intend to revisit Berger to explore this idea further.

Regarding power relations, Angelo notes that ‘making-do’ will disappear with urbanisation. This is something I have noticed along the canal. I felt the ‘making-do’ added personality and a sense of humanity to places. It could be something to draw out as a contrasting theme – I intend to explore this visually.

Reference

Angelo, H. (s.d.) ‘From the city lens toward urbanisation as a way of seeing: Country/city binaries on an urbanising planet’ In: Urban Studies 54 (1) pp.158–178.

How Pictures Work: Down the Rabbit Hole with David Campany

“Photographs show, but they don’t tell; they don’t explain. They are good at the what but not the why.” — David Campany

Source: inthein-between.com

An interview featured in ‘In the In-Between’ online journal resonates with me as I continue to contemplate the reading of images and construction of meaning, while making sense of the canal and what I might create from walking its route.

In my first essay I discussed the forming of meaning (or interpretation), and Campany’s comment below reminded me of Gombrich’s observation along the lines of meaning being fixed at the destination of communication rather than the origin.

“…I don’t really write about what images mean (I don’t really know what they mean), although I’m very interested in the processes by which meaning is made, unmade, remade.” — David Campany

Though Campany does go into acknowledge that there can be a collective sense of meaning in images that follow the conventions of their visual cultures. Rather than the psychology of perception, this might be thought of as the crowd-psychology of perception – perhaps related to the like-culture of social media. This leads to a discussion on the prevalence of cliché in fragmented cultures and an insistence that photographs should communicate something rather than be comfortable with their inherent instability.

Photography is a tool used in numerous ways, just as the tool of writing. I’m increasingly interested in how it might be used in reflecting how we process the visual world to make meanings; the psychology of perception as a close relation to the coding that is the subject of semiotics. Does this invert the concept of ‘representation’ of reality to become the representation of internalised meanings shaped through perception and context and experience of the beholder? What might it tell us about ourselves, or help others understand more about themselves and their perceptions?

Quick references

www.inthein-between.com/david-campany/ (accessed 28.6.19)

Understanding more about philosophy

In my reading on visual culture, I find the philosophical ideas are referred to, often without explanation and an assumption of familiarity. Photography can be concerned with everything and its conceptual framework is wide-ranging, making it a challenge to fully grasp all aspects.

It is impossible for me to study philosophy in any depth within the context of this photography course, but having never studied the subject I needed to fill gaps in my understanding of philosophical thinking so I can at least contextualise philosophical references when I come across them. I needed an over-view of thinking.

As a first step, I read Stephen Trombley’s A history of western thought . This tracks the evolution of Western thought and observes the connections between the various strands. A mini-mindmap of the book is attached.

The interplay between historical events and philosophical thinking is emphasised throughout the book. Nothing operates in a vacuum, even some what appears to be obscure philosophical thinking. Thinking is always contested – often aggressively and oppressively. The dominance of Christianity over thinking for centuries is an example of this, with its crusades, inquisitions and book bans. Power relations lead to self-interest in promoting certain perspectives. Thought evolves in response to events and knowledge – there is rarely a single moment in time that marks a change in thinking. For example, the enlightenment is described as ‘a tendency’ rather than a movement.

Trombley suggests that there are three thinkers that have influenced c20th thought more than any others – Darwin, Marx and Freud; respectively providing new frameworks for thinking about evolution (and therefore Christian beliefs); social relationships of capitalism (previously thought of as pure economics without the humanist perspective); and notions of human consciousness (how we may not be fully aware of our thinking that is influenced by the subconscious).

I have the overall impression that many original philosophical texts are dense and not straightforward to understand. A part of a course in photography, a general understanding of relevant thinking is mostly sufficient for my understanding. There are only a few texts so concerned with visual culture that would call for reading as original works, but overviews of the thinking of certain philosophers is something I will look at.

Philosophy-history-mindmap-2

References

Book: photography and zen

Western conceptual thinking and therefore conceptual thinking about photography is unsurprisingly dominated by Western ideas. I’ve been influenced in various ways by Eastern thought at different times in my life, firstly as a teenager playing Judo. Later as a guitarist, embracing the ideas of ‘Zen Guitar’ and more recently through the study of mindfulness. Also, while unaware of the conceptual thinking, being ‘in the flow’ while making street photography, which is what first encouraged me to study photography seriously.

I would characterise these practices as experiential – there are concepts and philosophies that can only really be understood through experiencing their practice. They are not simply conceptual. I am interested in how I might use these ideas to shape my photography practice and whether there is a research perspective for my contextual studies work. Also, whether there is a genre connection to psychogeography in this thinking. For example Umberto Eco’s essay Critique of the Image proposes various codes of recognition in the process of perception . These introduce bias into the perception of the significance of things; what is important and therefore, what might be a worthy photographic subject. Contemplative thinking can help put aside these biases and help interact with objects in their pure form.

I begin this exploration with the book Photography and Zen by Stephen Bray . Notes are below. My reflections on the reading are:

  • Realising the ‘interconnectedness’ of self-other-thing as a totality changes both perception and behaviour. We no longer think of self and other but together. There is some Western philosophy that draws on these ideas that I should explore further – Fichte and his ideas of ‘inter-subjectivity’ and Schopenhauer and his ‘negation of desire’.
  • Bray offers a number of photographic influences. With Chögyam Trungpa in particular deserving further research.
  • On a practical level Bray suggests two traps of photography: 1) producing stereotypical images and 2) abandoning convention, making images to please only ourselves and becoming completely unconcerned about others – using the term ‘spiritual materialism’ to describe this. Finding a right way, he suggests, is between the two extremes. To me, some conceptual photography falls into the latter category.

Bray’s conclusion to the book is interesting ‘ one of the dangers of photography is that, whilst it enables expression …, it can also become a substitute for living’.

Photography-and-Zen-Bray

References

Book: modernity and postmodern culture

The CS course materials talk briefly about the concepts of modern and postmodern in the context of visual art. I often feel a woolliness when these areas are discussed; either that the person talking has not firmly grasped the meaning or that there is no solid meaning available to grasp.

Jim McGuigan’s Modernity and Postmodern Culture provides a wider discourse on the subject area (ie broader than visual art) and I looked to it for clarity. It is, incidentally available from the UCA library as an ebook. The text is dense and would serve as a useful reference. However, my reading this time was to coordinate myself.

Attached below is a mindmap of summarising ideas that were useful to me. I note as text a few points I wish to keep in mind and some useful quotations from the book itself.

Understanding that the terms modern and postmodern are primarily about ways of thinking about what is happening across all elements of culture (including the non-elite) and that any reference to material reality (including art) is secondary. So art itself is better understood as exhibiting certain characteristics of the terms rather than helping to define the terms. It is also helpful to think of the terms as not referring to a certain historical period, but as an attitude towards the present. Part of a model / system for thinking. So modern art may have been more popular in a certain period, but it does not preclude art that exhibits those characteristics being produced at any other time. And it is not to be conflated with intellectual discourse that continues outside of material fashions.

Post-modern is defined in terms of modern, so modern must be understood first. McGuigan explains that modernism is a legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment movement and quotes characteristics proposed by Peter Hamilton (ibid, 40):

  1. Primacy of reason and rationality, tempered by experience and experiment.
  2. Empiricism – all thought and knowledge is based on empirical facts (things humans understand through senses).
  3. Science is key to expanding all human knowledge.
  4. Universalism – reason and science can be applied to every and any situation.
  5. Progress – idea that condition of human beings could be improved.
  6. Individualism – concept of the individual being the starting point.
  7. Toleration – we are all essentially the same.
  8. Freedom – opposition to feudal and traditional constraints on belief, social interaction, sexuality etc.
  9. Uniformity of human nature – always and everywhere the same
  10. Secularism – frequently anti-clericalism.

While it might be impossible to meet all of these characteristics, the rationalist functionality materialised in architecture in particular: concrete tower blocks that largely proved to be uninhabitable. McGuigan references Charles Baudelaire (ibid, 46) as having an essentially aesthetic view of modernity, rather than expressing conditions of knowledge: ‘modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’. There is an important distinction between the intellectual and the aesthetic.

Before moving to the postmodern, the author offers a personal view that the ‘project of intellectual modernity is revisable and, in theory, renewable … there were always alternative positions … contradictions … and struggle.’ This seems coherent within the characteristics quoted above – one wouldn’t expect its ideas to be fixed. However, perhaps for the purpose of labelling, some commentators prefer to fix them.

Postmodernism supersedes modernism, but into exactly what is uncertain, hence the open terminology ‘post-‘. Some ideas of what it might mean are noted in my mindmap. A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to Manual Castells’ The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, which is important to understanding our culture now in the context of the information age (notes in mindmap). Castells is quoted (ibid, 127):

Our world, and our lives, are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity. The information technology revolution, and the restructuring of capitalism, have induced a new form of society, the network society.


Castells’ work is concerned with the reshaping of the capitalist model and relations of production, power and experience through information technologies.

A quote from Ulrich Beck’s book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity offers another perspective on postmodernism (ibid, 140):

… everything is ‘post’. We have become use to postindustrial … With postmodernism things begin to get blurred. The concept of post-Enlightenment is so dark even a cat would hesitate to venture in. It hints at a ‘beyond’ which it cannot name …


McGuigan later quotes Eric Hobsbawn (ibid, 164) with a similar view on the problematic ‘post’, ‘… when people face what nothing in their past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, event when they can neither define nor understand it …’. McGuigan, himself offers, ‘at its worst, postmodernism encourages and ironic detachment and nihilistic indifference when confronted with the complex problems of a rapidly changing world. At best it opens up new terrains of criticism …’

McGuigan concludes with a call for us to do more than simply throw our hands up at the absurdity of it all (the modern world) with the ‘ironic detachment which is the epitome of postmodernism’. He calls for different modes of reasoning for different functions (ibid, 171) – ‘instrumental reason is useful but blind. Ironic reason is fun but irresponsible. Critical reason is vital.’

I’ve not much concerned myself with visual culture in this post, but I think it will help me with an intellectual understanding of the modern and post-modern and allow me to better contextualise visual culture, which is secondary to the intellectual aspect. There is a connection here to my Self & Other level 2 critical essay, A very postmodern anxiety in which I express a dissatisfaction with the postmodernist critical perspective on photography. I will revisit this as I explore visual cultural aspects.

modernity-and-postmodern-culture

Reference

On Facebook

I dislike Facebook for many of the things it seems to represent. Particularly its primary guise as a well-meaning community that connects ‘friends’. Whereas its raison d’être is making money through data collected and the mediation of ‘news’, promotions, and opinions with little obligation for responsibility over the veracity of information. I watch with interest the current debates on social media regulation . Someone once commented that Guy Debord would have found the idea of a ‘facebook friend’ the pinnacle of the society of the spectacle.

As photographer interested in identity and therefore community, it is perhaps impossible to ignore Facebook as it has become a superhighway of communication and ‘groups’ can be a useful source of information about the interests of the online versions of physical communities. I’ve therefore set up a group for my body of work project @29Miles, mainly as a channel for interaction with Facebook groups related to the canal. For example the canal boat owners group could be a source for volunteers who are willing to be photographed on their boats (if I decide to advertise for volunteers, rather than relying on chance encounters). The group also provides a way for volunteers (ad hoc or otherwise) to validate my activity as a photographer.

The idea of a ‘Facebook’ community is perhaps something that could be referenced in my contextual work around identity.

References

Book: Psychogeography (pocket edition)

In the context of genres and placing my own work, I feel there may be some connection with psychogeography. When I think back to the beginning of my serious photography, it was in street photography and the pleasure of wandering unfamiliar streets. Though, I had not heard the term ‘psychogeography’ back then.

I read Merlin Covey’s book Psychogeography earlier in my OCA studies and revisited it now to understand more about the genre. I note here points relevant to my own work.

While psychogeography is strongly connected with Guy Debord and the Situationist International movement (founded 1957), Covey argues that its practice and reflection in literature (even if not labelled as such) pre-dates Debord with English writers like Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731). Particularly influential is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which gets a nod in later psychogeographical works including the films of Patrick Keiller (London and Robinson in Space). Importantly, it is not a practice that should be too strongly attached to wandering the streets of Paris, even if that is where the term was coined. Debord defined the term: ‘Psychogeography – The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment , consciously organized or not , on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ However, Covey is enthusiastic in connecting the practice to the streets of London and authors writing about those streets.

It is seen as a practice associated with city streets, kicking against the flows organised by town planners: ‘the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets ; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging ; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti – rational over more systematic modes of thought .’ . I may find following the route of a canal, even if I step away from it on occasion, a very different experience to wandering a multidimensional city. I think for a psychogeographic experience, it will be necessary to step away from the path and explore what lies around it in the towns and cities along the route. At the same time, wandering too far would make the work no longer about the canal. I feel that this would be the practices of a genre positively shaping my practice, rather than it being an adjustment of practice so the work better fits a genre.

The practice involves a mindful approach that challenges our usual perceptions, as Covey suggests, ‘transforming our experience of everyday life and replacing our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous … street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and challenge our perceptions.’ . I think bringing a mindful or contemplative approach to my work will be important to its success – otherwise I could miss what is hidden in the banality of long empty stretches of little used industrial-age motorways.

Covey observes Debord’s concern about the ‘banalisation’ driven by modernity and mass consumerism, and alludes to the ‘spectacle’ – the essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities and our immersion in this world of rampant consumerism leaves us disconnected from the history and community that might give our lives meaning’. . I don’t yet know what I will find along the 29¼ route, but I suspect commercialism may be limited. I’m perhaps more likely to experience modernity through suburbanism. As psychogeography concerns itself with the negative psychological and geographic impact of modernism, my work could also be aligned to the genre through this.

Covey’s work concludes by examining psychogeography today, citing writers such as JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. Interestingly for my project, Ballard regards the ‘city as a semi-extinct form’, he thinks, ‘the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on … you find uncentered lives … more freedom to explore imagination and obsessions.’ . I think this thread and Ballard’s work is worth following up – the notion that the banality of the suburbs dissolves community and is replaced by self-obsession.

Covey’s book has cemented the idea that my own work could be placed in the psychogeography genre. Also, an interest in revisiting Robinson Crusoe (last read as a child) and looking at JG Ballard’s work.

References

Coverley, M. (2012) Psychogeography [Kindle edition]. (Amazon Kindle) (s.l.): Oldcastle Books.

Society of the Spectacle: Guy Debord

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was introduced in the course material within the context of psychogeography as a prominent text for the Situationist International movement, to which psychogeography links itself. I’ve owned a copy of the book for some time but confess have never read it as I was put off by the dense text and no real imperative to read it. However, as the ideas of psychogeography are relevant to my project, I’ve now read it and include a few notes here.

  • It is not just me who finds the text dense and I found out that this style was apparently typical of the Situationist movement. There is a Guardian online ‘Big Ideas’ podcast , in which the work is discussed and provides a simplified overview of the work.
  • While the book was originally published in 1967, it felt contemporary, as if Debord had predicted the future. It is a grim and relentless attack on the flaws of contemporary society as (or perhaps more) relevant today as it was in 1967.
  • The book is wide ranging in its scope, and my notes sketch only ideas that may be relevant to my work. The references are to the paragraph numbers – the whole book is labelled in this way, like a bible of discontentment.
  • ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images’ . This understanding seems critical in the context of visual culture – it speaks to the idea that meaning is derived through culture and society, not through images themselves. It also plays to the deception that images convey reality and do not need reading or decoding. Therefore, Debord argues that ‘… life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation’ . Arguably, just parts of the world were once subsumed into religious ideology, many parts of the world are now under the spell of the spectacle (resulting from capitalist ideology).
  • Debord talks of a sense of alienation as the dominant images destroy understanding of life and what is important to self; ‘The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere’ . To me this connects to the mindful contemplation of space that is part of psychogeography – stepping back with a fresh perspective and trying to see things as they really are. It also speaks to the attraction of the spaces in edgelands (a canal can be one), where the spectacle is mostly absent – there is little commercial interest in these backwaters and they offer a place of escape.
  • As an aside, Debord references the ‘chronicle’, which one might equate to the ‘archive’, as ‘the expression of the irreversible time of power … the owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a menaing’ . This echoes Allan Sekula’s thoughts on the archive.
  • Chapter VII deals with territorial domination and is particularly relevant to my work.
    • Tourism ‘the opportunity to go and see what has been banalised’ . I’m not sure that holidays on canals (at least in the UK are hugely popular as ‘there is nothing to see’).
    • Urbanism is the modern method for solving the ongoing problem of safeguarding class power by atomising the workers who have been dangerously brought together ..’. As one walks the edgelands, there is an awareness of the urban sprawl and the apparent absence of community spaces within the ‘mass of thinly spread semi-urban tissue’. It had not occurred to me that this might be by design, rather than economic disinterest.
  • Finally, I mention Debord’s definition of culture; ‘is the general sphere of knowledge and of representation of lived experences within historical societies divided into classes.’

I’m pleased that I eventually read this book as it contains some special thinking that looks outside of what we are immersed within. It helps articulate what many people may intuitively feel about the world and explains an attraction to the edgelands.

References

Social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu

This work was originally published in 1965 and features in Visual Culture: a reader . It addresses the question of photographic genres in the context of popular culture and how photography is defined socially. While the language and the division of critical perspectives along class lines now seems archaic, the discussion remains relevant. Potentially it has heightened relevance in a contemporary context, in which images are shared prolifically online.

I note aspects of interest to me at this time:

  • ‘… that which is visible is only ever that which is legible’ . If we cannot read or understand a photograph it remains invisible. The ability to read or understand is partly dependent on education and experience, and the implications of limitations are explored by Bourdieu.
  • Building on the idea, Bourdieu argues that while popular reading of photographs might embrace the idea that they agree to reality, it is not the case. However, to be read successfully, they need to conform ‘with rules which define its syntax within its social use’ , otherwise they are not understood and dismissed. Anyone who has taken a photo of something mundane is likely to have experienced this. He explains that popular photographic aesthetic is based on prohibiting certain possibilities (eg photographing into the light, or blur) and anything that fails to acknowledge these rules may be read as a failure. Therefore, if non-conforming work is to have any chance of being read broadly, it needs to be explained and appropriately situated. Perhaps in a genre that connects it with art rather than the vernacular.
  • Bourdieu discusses the idea of ‘natural poses and postures’ and observes that these are based on cultural ideals of what is natural, rather than actualities. And that the cultural ideas often reflect norms stemming from social relationships. For example, ‘the convergence of looks and the arrangement of individuals objectively testifies to the cohesion of the group’
  • Popular judgement of photos is then against norms, ‘whose principle is always ethical’ . Bourdieu explains that genres help to situate photographs amongst the norms and ‘the ordinary use of photography almost completely excludes any concern for the universality of the picture … [and is concerned] with what it is for one person or for a group of people.’ . As artistic photographs might escape conventional genres/categorisation, unless they can be placed as ‘a competition photograph’ – it then has a social function.
  • Bourdieu discusses a technology aesthetic, which seems prevalent in contemporary vernacular photographs and camera clubs. He sums up, ‘the judgement of taste is the appraisal of a disparity between the realisation … and a real idea or model.
  • In concluding the essay, Bourdieu discusses the legitimacy of various creative activities in the sphere of art, placing photography in a category that is fighting for that. He suggests that ‘it is no accident that passionate photographers are always obliged to develop the aesthetic theory of their practice, to justify their existence as photographers by justifying the existence of photography as a true art’

While the work was written over half a century ago and photography is widely accepted into the art establishment, my feeling that this acceptance is not universal or understood – photography is increasingly open to everyone at the level of pressing a button on a camera or phone to make some kind of image. Whereas it is self-evident that playing a musical instrument, for example, is more of a rarified activity.

What is slightly concerning that this need to justify and theorise can perhaps take over the activity of making images. Where does the analysis stop and the image making begin – do we choose to be photography theorists or photographers? Perhaps there needs to be just enough theory to justify the work we make as art.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual culture: the reader.London ; Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University. pp.162–180.

Responding to the archive: Nicky Bird

The BoW course material includes Sharon Boothroyd’s interview with photographic artist Nicky Bird in which they discuss Bird’s use of the archive. For reference, Bird’s work can be viewed on her website . As I read, I attempted to distill the attraction of working with archives:

  • By their very nature, there is an element of nostalgia – they involving looking back to a past time that is perhaps perceived to be better than the present. While an artist may not feel or intend to be nostalgic, nostalgia is a powerful trigger in viewers (as commercial advertisements anecdotally suggest).
  • Discovering something previously ‘hidden’ creates an interesting and even exciting narrative. ‘It was lost but now it has been found’. A redemption or intrigue. There was something of this in Taryn Simon’s work also.
  • When working with source negatives or prints (as Bird did with some of her work), there is the possibility of discovering alternative readings of photographs, which had perhaps been heavily cropped for the purposes of publication in magazines or journals.
  • When dealing with analogue prints (as opposed to digital screen copies) there is a physical connection through touching and feeling to the past that ‘brings home that this is part of someone’s life’. I intend to work more with physical objects in my up coming work – I’m perhaps experiencing a digital / screen fatigue, with convenience and portability giving way to a wish for physical connection. Something perhaps to research as cultural development.
  • Working with found photographs or an archive, inevitably involves a process of collecting and organising. In general activities that involve collecting are popular – they perhaps speak to a sense of bringing order or control to a life that otherwise appears chaotic. There maybe some comfort in this.
  • Finally, for Bird, ‘it is connected with class’. The importance of social history in understanding social structures and thinking beyond the experience in which we are currently immersed and may find difficult to see beyond or question as it becomes normative. This aspect requires careful contextualisation of the archive for it to become of real value – something that could be difficult with found photographs. I examined Allan Sekula’s concerns about the archive and they are relevant to this aspect.

When I begin to research my 29 Miles project, I’ll be looking at archives and historical reference material. Even if I don’t use them in my work (I’m not currently planning to), this thinking about archives will perhaps help me be better prepared to read them.

References

Allan Sekula on reading an archive – the clearing houses of meaning?

I’ve always felt disquiet when viewing archives, but have never been able to understand quite why. Allan Sekula’s essay Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital has helped my understanding. With the separation of authorship and control a space is opened with the potential for representation, misrepresentation, self-interest; a ‘clearing house of meaning’ . In the extreme, there is the potential for the archive to erase the original meaning. Conflations of meaning that are difficult to unpick.

Sekula uses the example of the archive of a commercial photographer, Leslie Shedden, from a mining town, to critically examine the archive concept. He observes that it is not unreasonable to label photographers the ‘proletarians of creation’, with the power resting with the owners of the archives – free to change meanings as images (or even the whole archive) is exchanged. But an archive is a convenient banquet of images, so how should we consume it while being fully aware of what we are doing?

These are the points, I’ll aim to keep in mind:

  • ‘meaning is not extracted from nature, but from culture’ – knowing and understanding the original context for images included in an archive seems important.
  • the archive has a quasi-capitalist perspective, organised through bureaucratic processes, and is not generally of the people. Archives ‘maintain a hidden connection between knowledge and power’ . They can ‘disguise history as representation over interpretation’ and extend cultural dominance. Being aware of power and its influence on representation may be advisable when viewing archives.

Sekula considers how Shedden’s work might be used in the context of an archive and the difficulties with various approaches and photographic culture itself. He describes conflicting directions as ‘a dualism between the myth of objective truth on one side and art / subjective experience on the other’ . Ultimately, Sekula suggests that ‘we need to understand how photography works within everyday life in advanced industrial societies: the problem is one of materialist cultural history rather than art history’ . In other words, if the critical perspective used doesn’t encompass the actuality of a situation, it struggles as a basis for analysis.

I’m not sure that there is much to recommend in becoming to attached to the meaning of a polysemous photograph, but there is something to be said about properly understanding what is being presented as authoritative. Like reading a newspaper, some scepticism is advised.

References

Sekula, A. (1999) ‘Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual culture: the reader.London: Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University. pp.181–192.

Genres

The OCA BoW materials briefly discusses genres and outlines what are called traditional genres before proposing ‘narrative genres’ that are said to have become common phrases used by artists. It is these narrative genres that the course material intends to work with. The inference could be that they displace or are more relevant than traditional genres. What we call things is important, and here I reflect on the use of genres before moving on to look at how work might fit within genres.

Attached are some short notes. In making these I also referred to Terry Barrett’s book Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images , in which he discusses genres at length and also proposes his own system for categorising photographs (not photographers).

Genres

The important messages for me is that ‘genres’ have developed based on different descriptive / categorisation needs. It is not necessarily that one approach is better than another, more that they serve different purposes. I would suggest that the genres mentioned by the OCA can be thought of as meta-genres; genres about the traditional genres, referring to the narrative structures within the traditional genres. Barrett’s own approach proposes functional categorisation, describing how the images are being used (they could transition between genres depending on context), which is related to how a photography might be read or decoded.

I understand that labels and categories are helpful to enable us to make sense of the world, but they inevitably simplify by introducing a binary dimension to complex texts. I feel it helpful to use genres, but to also keep in mind their purpose and limitations.

References

Skim Contextual Studies materials

What struck me is this requires good organisation from the outset – there needs to be a trail of everything read over a large amount of material. The requirement for a ‘research folder’ to be kept and submitted as part of assessment wasn’t something I’d anticipated – something I’ll check with others on what they found works / any difficulties encountered.

I plan to put a process in place so the organisation of materials takes care of itself as I progress and I can hopefully then focus on the analytical and creative areas of writing.

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Skim BoW course materials

Good to get familiar with the materials before starting work. It’s going to be a very different way of working to the previous course modules. How will I know when it is finished? is important for me – not much risk of procrastination, but I’m often keen to move on to the next idea so need to guard against that and under-producing. This time the end is the end and the result is the result. A journey to be enjoyed and engaged with profoundly!

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