Photographs are a form of data visualisation

I don’t find listening to podcasts particularly easy, by which I mean I don’t find it easy to pay attention to the details. I do enjoy listening to them, but in the background while I’m doing something else, or if I’m struggling to get to sleep on my own and need a gentle voice drone to send me off. (American dudes with their drawls are best for this – I don’t think I’ve ever made it more than 20 minutes into the ATP podcast without napping.)

The problem hits when I have a podcast which actually has content that’s useful to me, as happened with an episode of Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner’s Data Stories featuring Jer Thorp. I’ve seen Jer talk on stage and find his Twitter very useful but couldn’t really explain exactly what it is he does, so an interview like this was a must. And it was about the relationship between data visualisation and art, something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Focussing on 70 minutes of conversation was hard – I dozed off twice and had to scroll back a few times when I felt I’d missed a key point. But during a semi-slumber something Jer said sparked something in my mind which lead to a train of thought which ended with me typing this in my notes:

“A photograph is a ‘data visualisation’ of the information coming into the camera. How can that visualisation reflect the messier systems in the camera more?”

It starts of well and then stumbles into incoherence, but that’s always a good sign because it means there’s work to be done.

The thought is that a photograph tells you something about the machine that made it. On a formal level this means the ExIF metadata locked into the JPEG, but it also comes out in the image itself. The shape of the lens, the clarity of the glass, the cleanliness of the sensor – all these things can be deduced from the image. Light leaks on film cameras strike me as evidence of the integrity of the camera rendered on the photograph.

But also consider how the photograph visualises how the camera is held. An SLR is usually held by the head, a cameraphone at arms length, and a Roliflex at the waist. And if the shooter goes off-script and holds the camera in the “wrong” way, this is also visualised in the photo.

bridge

Photos by Chris Bainbridge photographing Matt Murtagh photographing me on a Flickrmeet in, golly, 2006

So a photograph is not just a record of what was in front of the camera. It’s a record of the camera itself and how it was handled, just as a bullet is a record of the rifle that shot it and a skid mark a record of the driver who drove the car.

This gives me a nice piece of clarity because it means the evidence I need for my prospective speculative cameras is not so much the devices themselves but the difference in the photographs they (allow the user to) produce. The image is the thing.

This might not seem such a big deal but I’ve spent the last few years saying I’m more interested in the moments that precede the creation of a photograph than the resulting photograph itself. Now I’ve realised that the photograph is the record of those moments, the act of photography visualised.

Which is pretty neat. I should dreamily half-listen to more interesting podcasts and see what other connections my brain makes.

Who wants to learn openFrameworks this year?

openFrameworks is a thing done with computers that I think I need to learn properly. It’s essentially programming, but it’s programming used by a whole chunk of artists I’m admiring from afar and has been on my radar for a good couple of years. Here are some of the things you can do with it.

I plan to work through the tutorials over the next couple of months so that by the Spring I’m able to start using it in my work. Not mastery, by any stretch, but a level of competence similar to, say, my ability use Photoshop. Or a hammer.

Does anyone in the Birmingham area want to join me? It’s possibly a bit niche, but potentially not, particularly amongst visual artists working with laptops.

I’m thinking of having regular meetups at BOM, maybe alongside the weekly Open Code sessions when the start again, where we compare notes, and then some kind of email peer support. Or whatever works out the best for people.

Important condition of entry: You must be able to get through the set-up on your machine and the first tutorial on your own. I want this to be a peer-learning thing, not a me-teaching thing.

Drop me an email if you’re interested. pete@peteashton.com

Understanding Schilling pt 1

In early October, during the first Goodbye Wittgenstein exchange, I was introduced to Alfons Schilling by Thomas Philipp aka Fipps of the Austrian qujOchÖ collective, after I told him about my adventures in building cameras and what I’ve come to call “active seeing”, aka methods for paying attention to what’s around you. A quick image search turned up this picture.

2007-4-konstrukce1.jpg.full

Which is a man with some kind of contraption on his head. I liked this image a lot and dug further. Here’s some more images I found.

bild

UfG_lehrveranstaltung_29_04_2014_lq 10

UfG_lehrveranstaltung_29_04_2014_lq 14

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 17.50.14

So who is this man and why is he building these marvellous things? Obviously they’re awesome in and of themselves, but what’s the underlying idea? Where is the Art?

I think Alfons Schilling is going to be the most important practical reference point for my work this year. (My theoretical reference point is still Vilém Flusser) so I’m going to try and spend a few blog posts outlining and understanding what he’s doing when he makes these things. This is the first attempt.

Unfortunately, while Schilling seems fairly well known in Austrian art circles there’s not so much written in English, and my German is non-existent. Also, the one book about his work is currently £125 on Amazon, which is sightly out of my budget, and doesn’t appear to be in Birmingham library catalogues. But have found one good survey of his work in English by Martina Tritthart. It’s a password-protected PDF which can’t be copied or printed, but you can read it. I’ve uploaded it here and will now work through it in a blog post, as is my way.

Tritthart starts with a really useful observation.

  • The participation of the observer is the key to [Schilling’s] artwork. The activities of the observer in fact constitute the artwork. The perceiver becomes the producer through perception.

This is something I’ve often wanted through my work and the idea of the “art” emerging as the viewer processes the piece is very attractive.

After a couple of pages on historical precedents for thinking about space and vision, Tritthart begins to describe Schilling’s work. Some excerpts:

  • Schilling has engaged intensively with binocular perception and the possible ways of representing space and movement in pictures.
  • [He] invites the recipient to become conscious of his perception and his faculty for knowledge.
  • Schilling looks at consciousness and cognitive reactions to the environment.
  • Schilling dealt with the mechanisms of perception themselves.
  • [He] constructs experimental compositions […] in which viewers are forced into active participation. The work does not demand objective viewing, but exists only in the subjective experience of the recipient.

She then describes some of his works, which you can read for yourself, before making some final statements.

  • Schilling demonstrates that the physical equipment used in the process of perception determines the perception of space, and that visual perception is therefore overrated. [Deliciously definitive statement there which raises all the eyebrows!]
  • His work […] evokes questions in the viewer about himself and his perception, space and infinity.
  • He calls into question the mechanisms of perception in the brain that construct the interpretation of reality.

Finally, this nutshell:

  • [His] strategy of disconcerting the viewer makes the later aware of his role as perceiver and knower.

Making the viewer aware of what they’re doing when they experience at artwork seems a very worthwhile thing to do.

There’s plenty there that I can use to start to build my own framework for exploring potential and speculative cameras. Thanks to Martina Tritthart for explaining his work so well, and for putting it online for me to read.

If you know of any other good resources on Schilling, preferably in English, please do let me know!

It’s about power, not technology

Another day, another article about “tech dissenters” lamenting the loss of our “humanity” through these infernal devices connected to the ever-hungry internet machine. They’re nothing new and this strain can be traced back to the anti-blogging backlash of the early 00’s, or at least that’s when I first came across them.

The problem I have is I’m hugely sympathetic to their concerns but I think many of them have completely missed the point. Or if they have got the point, the wider narrative of blaming “technology” drowns it out.

Two things.

1) Humanity, as we understand it, has always involved technological augmentation. The use of and application of tools, from hammers to paint brushes to computers, is what separates us from (most of) the other animals. Another way of saying this is our interaction with the real world has always been mediated by technology. We do things that should be impossible every day, from riding bikes to wearing glasses, and consider them natural, because they are. We have always been cyborgs.

If you can accept this, then you quickly realise the concept of a “real world” that isn’t mediated by technology is pretty useless, because you need to draw a line, and that line is probably going to be generational – the stuff you grew up with is okay (television, cinema), the stuff you didn’t (internet, smartphones) is too much. That isn’t to say you’re wrong – maybe smartphones are too much – but the basis for your assumption is massively flawed.

Further reading: John Durham Peters’ The Marvellous Clouds (summary)

2) It’s always about power and control. Facebook is a problem not because of what it does (connecting people across the world is a fantastic thing) but because of how it does it. Facebook is a massive corporate entity with little-to-no oversight that is commercialising our humanity for the benefit of a very tiny few. Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the rest all work in roughly the same manner and regardless of your political or economic beliefs it’s safe to say we’re seeing a massive and unprecedented centralising of wealth, which equals control, information, influence and ultimately power.

This is the critique of our new technology that is needed. We need to think of ways to dismantle the new hegemony of Silicon Valley ideologues and spread the wealth, just as our ancestors did after the Industrial Revolution. We need a socio-political approach that embraces the benefits of recent developments in technology, for those benefits have been huge, but moves towards devolving control to the people who use them. We need a declaration of independence, a separation of corporation and state.

Scepticism about technology in and of itself is pointless. Scepticism about who does or should control that technology is essential. Our freedom, however you might define that term, depends on it.

Never loved atheism

Technically I’m an atheist, in that I don’t believe there’s an almighty god or gods or higher power or anything. I believe the universe runs on cause and effect, that we’re made of stardust and that no-one has a bloody clue what’s going on. Life is ultimately futile and pointless, but that this is a good thing because it’s up to us to make something of it. But ultimately I just can’t see the god thing working. it doesn’t compute.

But I’ve never liked the “atheist” label. It implies the denial of something that I don’t feel the need to deny. To say you’re an atheist requires you to be able to explain why you’re not a theist of some description, which I really don’t need to. Denial means taking a stance, but doing so on an utter absence of giving a shit is pretty tricky.

Atheism, as in the movement, is also tricky, mostly because most people who proudly claim to be Atheists are the more boorishly tedious than the most evangelical Christian. And again, it’s a movement based on not believing in some specific things, which is a bit weird.

But ultimately the problem is atheism is ultimately impossible. I don’t follow a god or prophet or other higher power, but I do believe plenty of things than I can’t rationally prove. I have contradictory thoughts and irrational behaviours. This is because I am a human being functioning in a chaotic world which my simple meat-brain cannot fully comprehend without some major mental modelling.

In short, I probably believe as much ridiculous bullshit as the next Christian. Which makes setting myself aside from them as something better kinda tricky.

So, no, I don’t believe in God or any other god. But that doesn’t make me an atheist.

Pockets and Feminism

Before Xmas I popped into Peacocks, a clothes shop in Kings Heath I’d had some success with in the past, specifically for socks and what we in this household call “lounge pants”, being the sort of pyjama trousers you can wear around the house. I have a very nice pair acquired from Peacocks a year or so ago and wanted a backup for when they finally wear out. But it turns out Peacocks were bought out by some company who proceeded to change the suppliers for everything they sold, meaning the only connection between Peacocks then and Peacocks now is the name. Which, when you think about it, must be some kind of fraud, or trade-descriptions infringement. Yay capitalism.

They didn’t have the lounge pants I’d bought previously, so I bought the ones they did have and took them home. Not quite as thick and dark blue rather than black, but they seemed sufficient. But on putting them on at home I discovered a fatal flaw.

No pockets.

Now, as a man I generally expect all my lower-body outer garments to have pockets. Even swimming shorts have at least a couple and trousers usually four or six. If I can’t put stuff I need into the clothes I’m wearing then… well, that’s just stupid, right?

So these trousers have no pockets and the experience of wearing them is insane. Nowhere for a handkerchief, nowhere for my phone.

Of course, any woman reading this will know all to well what I’m banging on about because pockets are a feminist issue. In short, clothing that prevents a person from having important things to hand makes that person dependent on those who have those things to hand. And due to the sensibleness of male trousers, the person with things to hand is nearly always a man.

I can have the door keys out and in the keyhole in seconds. Fi has to struggle to find them in her bag. I’m in control of the door. Because the patriarchy gave me sensible trousers.

As you’d imagine, plenty has been written about this (search for “feminist pockets“) but I particularly enjoyed The Gender Politics of Pockets.

Now, to find some lounge pants with bloody pockets…

Talking about cameras at Ignite Brum

Waaay back in October I gave a talk at Ignite Brum about cameras. Ignite is one of those “20 slides that move on automatically” formats, similar to Pecha Kucha which I’ve done many times. Ignite differs in that it’s 15 seconds, not 20 seconds, which I didn’t think would make much difference.

Boy was I wrong.

Watching it now it doesn’t seem so bad but at the time I was convinced I’d utterly bollixed it up. A combination of a different format (those 5 seconds!), the oppressive stage lighting at the Glee Club (possibly my least favourite venue as a punter, now also as a performer) but ultimately the simple fact that I couldn’t properly articulate what I wanted to talk about.

I’ve been saying recently that my Catch-22 is I can’t explain what I’m interested in, which is why I’m interested in it. Once I can explain it, then it’s done and it’s time to move on. Which makes talking about my current passions rather tricky.

This Ignite talk is supposed to outline where my art is heading over the next year. It sort of does that. Maybe cramming it into 20 slides at 15 seconds each was asking too much, or maybe I should give this talk again once I’ve figured out how to talk about it.

Sitting In Stagram featured in Phox Pop

A while ago I was asked by Amy, the editor of Phox Pop magazine, if she could feature Sitting In Stagram in their inaugural issue. This sort of request has come a few times from publications large and small since the piece went proper-viral earlier in the year, and due to the weirdness of print publishing a lot of the time my “interview” never appeared, so I pretty much sent Amy the boilerplate copy, some high-res images and a link to the web page.

front-cover-350

I don’t have much time for print. It has value, but is these days too often fetishised as “real” in opposition to the ephemerality of online, preferring the obscurity of an economically constrained print run against the reach offered by the internet for some deranged notion of authenticity. Print also allows people who don’t understand the purpose of design to play at being “designers” which usually means making the publication as hard to read as possible.

So when I say I was very impressed with the copy of Phox Pop that came through the letterbox last month, please appreciate what that means. It’s a print publication I actually wanted to read and didn’t just file away, waiting to be recycled the next time I clear out those shelves of pretty but useless print.

Phox Pop is a modern magazine that understands the medium of magazines. It works with the constraints of the printed page to produce something that wouldn’t work in another medium. That’s impressive.

It also presented my work in a way that made me think about it in a new way, which was delightful and very welcome.

You can order a copy for £10 from here. Please tell Amy I sent you.

Here are the spreads of Sitting In Stagram.

I Am Sitting In Stagram spreads-1

I Am Sitting In Stagram spreads-2

And it was projected on the wall during the launch party!

IMG_2856

12274411_10153678043092534_8107667072919628940_n-2

Speculative Photography workshop outline

I was asked recently to sketch out the sort of workshop I might offer related to my current work with cameras and art and such. Here’s what I sent.

Speculative Photography

Cameras are all around us and can be found embedded in all sorts of objects, from phones to buildings to vehicles to drones. But we still think of a “camera” as looking like the classic SLR which takes a classic kind of photograph.

The Speculative Photography workshop explores how the design of the container for the camera changes the photography that emerges from it. What happens if we mount cameras on our shoes, or throw them in the air, or if three people need to operate them?

Length of workshop: half to full day

Participant age range: Teenager +

Level of experience needed (eg. in a particular software or area): None.

Overview of what it would entail:
Participants can bring their own digital cameras or cameraphones to use in the workshop, or can borrow a camera / webcam.
1. Introduction to the concept of building weird cameras.
2. Designing our new containers which will augment our cameras.
3. Making them out of materials in the building (mostly cardboard and duct tape, plus cheap lenses / magnifying glasses).
4. Taking the photographs with these strange looking machines.
5. Reviewing the photos as a group on the big screen.

Outcomes (eg. a skill or actual object): A deeper understanding of how cameras work and how the design of the device can dramatically inform how it is used. An augmentation of their camera to take home.

I hope to run something along these lines during 2016.