April 16, 2019

Through the Window

I’m trying to write short pieces using principles of photography to talk about how the world works. Some will land better than others, but one has to start somewhere.

Somewhat paradoxically, our attention is constrained by our wide field of vision. We can see nearly everything in front of us and that can make noticing things quite hard. An object has to shout to catch our attention, visually or audibly, and in doing so removes other objects from consideration. If nothing shouts then context flows free, juxtapositions abound and meanings are up for grabs.

The eye is constantly on the move. Images in our minds are really composites, constantly updated collages of many glances in different directions, merged with memories and filtered by emotions and anticipations. Our ability to effectively see everything in our field of vision is awesome, but hard to control.

We can manage our focus by using a frame. Any frame will do but the cliche of the photographer or film maker connecting their index finger to the opposing thumbs to make an ad-hoc frame is surprisingly effective.

A frame will enclose a subject, isolating it from that which is excluded, and that removal of context is where its power comes from.

The meaning of an object comes from its surroundings. This is one reason why an art gallery tends to be a white room with nothing to distract from the art on display - it is attempting to be a context-free zone. (Of course, that fails because the gallery itself is a very strong contextualiser, but I digress.)

When you put something next to something else, the meanings associated with those things interact and create something new. This is comic-book theory 101, as formalised by the Right Rev Scott McCloud. While individual panels or pictures have meaning, that meaning is significantly added to when other panels are juxtaposed and the comic is read. The words on this page work in the same way - individually they have meaning but collectively, in context, they mean significantly more.

Framing a subject for a photograph is an act of selecting context. We might chose a tight crop and exclude any context. We might pull back and show the environment the subject is in. We might go further and put the subject next to other things. We might go all the way and show many subjects, letting them fight equally for attention (the “field photos” of Joel Meyerowitz). The meaning assigned to the subject, the story told, will be different in each.

Think of a person watching the world go by their window. They see people walk by, but only for a moment. They don’t know where they came from or where they’re going to. The only information they have is what’s visible through the aspect of their window. They don’t see the whole picture, of course, but they see it without distraction. Their impression of the world has a focus not available to someone on the street itself.

Is one better than the other? No, of course not. But they are different, and that’s important.

There’s a case to be made that Plato’s cave functions as an excluding frame. By chaining the viewers so they can only see shadows the cave removes context and leaves everything up to the imagination. But remove the chains and the viewer has the choice between the world-as-it-is and the abstracted shadows. In the service of a greater point, Plato believes the shadows are a lesser experience, but I’d argue they can be a useful tool when used freely. Switching between the abstract and the opposite-of-abstract (represented?) can bring a deeper understanding of both.

March 25, 2019

Three things that got Pete thinking

We watched the Bohemian Rhapsody film last night, wanting something a bit light and fluffy after a long week, and wow, that’s a terrible piece of film making, framing some amazingly well shot scenes. Its flaws are well recorded by this stage but that disconnect between the recreations of the stage shows and of off-stage life reminded me of First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic.

As a massive Apollo junkie in my youth I got a visceral thrill out of the scenes shot from Armstrongs PoV because I’d always dreamed of being in that situation. The art and science of film-making put me right there. Surrounding those was a weirdly limp film that didn’t seem to be able to find anything to say about this amazing man. BohRhap was similar, though maybe it had too much to say and no idea how to say it, but the power of putting you on the stage with Freddie was immense. Spine tingling stuff that almost made you forget you’d sat through this weirdly edited nonsense.

The power of modern cinema seems to be less about showing you things than about putting you in things. It’s immersive, and not in a shitty 3D or VR sense. It’s something I’d like to see someone do one of those video essays about.

Speaking of which, I’ve enjoyed these video essays of late:

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prizewinning Physicist Says - I enjoyed this, or found it reassuring at least. I’ve long been drifting away from the proponents of what’s termed “New Atheism”, partly because they present as self-righteous angry eejits who don’t know how to play nice, but also because I sensed they were wrong about the value of what we might call the irrational, the mystical, the magical. Binary thinking is proving itself less and less useful and seeing no room between Dawkins and the Catholic Church is at best delusional. Science is, broadly, a tool for understanding the world in practical, empirical terms. Faith, in the broadest sense ignoring religion for now, is also a tool for understanding the world, albeit it in a completely different fashion, usually when no actual evidence is to hand. When I’m thinking about the world I will tend to use both. It’s all part of the mix of thinking. And it also stops you being a total dick.

I had this notion last week for using John Cage’s 4′33″ as a way of thinking about photography. This much misunderstood work is not about silence, because silence is impossible. It’s about how Cage believes any sound can be considered music, from a cough to a car engine backfiring.

He’s not asking us to listen to things. He asking us to listen to the shapes things make with their sounds. By staging it in a traditional concert setting he’s encouraging us to think about ambient sounds in the same way we think of the sounds coming from a musical instrument. When you hear an orchestra you don’t just think of the instruments - you apply meaning and emotion to the sound. It makes you think and feel, triggering your brain into having an experience beyond mere listening.

Trumpets don’t make music. They make sounds which we interpret as music. Why can’t we interpret other sounds as music? All we need to do is detach their meaning from what they represent. Artists who work with field recordings and found sounds do this a lot (there’s a regular night in Stirchley dedicated to this sort of thing), taking a waveform from the world and presenting it out of context to see what happens.

Photographers do very similar work and understanding photography involves accepting that it is not representative in the strictest sense. A photograph is less about what is captured than what is not - every moment before and after the exposure, everything outside the frame, all the non-visual things happening in the space. All this is important context that is discarded and that leaves spaces ready to be filled by the imagination.

This is why the more abstract a photograph is the more it evokes. Like this well-discussed Cartier-Bresson piece. Can you imagine how dull it would be if it were in high definition colour?

Cartier Bresson

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March 14, 2019

More Stuff Pete’s Been Thinking About

I often have a Wikipedia page for some concept or idea open in a browser tab. It gets closed when I’m done with it, so the longer it’s there, the more useful it’s likely to be. Currently I’ve had Imagined Community refusing to be closed every time I trim my browser down, so I guess it’s a good one to dig deeper into.

Imagined Communities is a model for looking at how nationalism can work across a whole country of millions when we barely know a few hundred of our “fellow citizens”. A nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group, amplified by the media which promotes a common vernacular language, starting with print moving away from Latin around the 16th century.

The origins are interesting, but what really intrigues me is the fluidity of it all, the fact that something as seemingly concrete as a national identity is really anchored by the shifting sands of language.

I’ve never felt particularly patriotic or felt an explicit identification with my nation of birth - I get an acute dissonance when people talk about how “we” are doing in the World Cup or the Olympics because I don’t really feel any connection with the people on those teams, other than we communicate in broadly the same sort of way. That said, I’d probably struggle to have a nuanced conversation with someone who’s life has been totally informed by the culture of sport. We might be physically from the same country but culturally we’re on different planets.

(Sidebar: at University I worked in a shop with a proper sporty lady, captain of the hockey team and all that. We became friends mostly out of mutual fascination - we’d never really known anyone like the other before.)

A major thread through my adult life has been what I’d come to call “distributed communities of interest”, from the fanzines of the 90s connected by an international postage system to the post-millennial blogs and social media of the internet. This always struck me as a fix for those who don’t fit the dominant imaged community for whatever reason, and it was why I used to recommend looking at how marginalised and/or nerdy communities used online social tools because it would often be driven by a desperate necessity rather than curiosity.

Of course by looking at what we might call “mainstream culture” as an imagined community, we can see it as just a bigger version of those communities of interest which is arguably now being fractured into smaller and smaller communities as big media loses it’s hold. The Brexit years are showing us that the imagined community of Great Britain doesn’t work anymore. Within this the imagined communities of the political parties are also weak, working at best as dysfunctional coalitions, if that.

Britain is now a nation of many nationalisms. While the power structures may still be broadly intact, no community feels it has the majority to control them. Everyone’s a minority now. We’re all nerds.

When I was discovering and helping build communities of interest for “my people” I dreamed of a time when the mainstream media wouldn’t lose its power. As the internet stole commercial media’s advertising revenue and the BBC was neutered in an attempt to balance the field it seemed like this dream was coming true. Control of the media would be proper distributed amongst the people! Yay!

Of course that hasn’t really happened - the control just went elsewhere - but the structure of the British mediascape has been totally fractured into feeding and serving a bewildering variety of contradictory communities, many of which desire totally irrational things incompatible with any sane reality. Which, if you’ve ever been active in nerd circles, will seem rather familiar.

What if, by making the world more nerd-friendly, we broke the world?

Had quite the International Women’s Day faux pas last week at work. Rach, a woman, was in the bakery and called out that she’d just remembered it was International Women’s Day. Neil and I, men of middling years, were in the shop and both misheard her over the sounds of baking machines, specifically the “Int” prefix, assuming that she’d said National Women’s Day. We both, in tandem, shouted back “INTernational Women’s Day” and then became acutely aware at how we’d knee-jerkedly corrected a woman and how ironic that was given the subject of the correction. To make matters worse the conversation became completely about us and how amusingly idiotic we had been, and then about how ironic it was that we’d hijacked the conversation making it about us. A double-irony, double-hijack, if you like.

Meanwhile Rach never did say anything about International Women’s Day that morning, at least not when Neil and I were around.

Goes to show it’s not enough to be aware of this sort of thing and to see it when it happens. One needs to work to iron it out of your behaviour too. We are programmed by the society we were raised in which, the older you are, was a pretty imperfect place (in Western societies anyway - I can’t speak for other places on the globe). Deprogramming that shit is a personal responsibility. No-one’s going to do it for you, especially not those who are negatively impacted by the programmes in question. And, like most things in life, there ain’t a guidebook. Just experience, so I guess the trick is to get more and more experiences.

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March 10, 2019

Stuff Pete’s Thinking About

I realised it’s been months since I wrote anything for myself, and that might explain why I’m feeling a little constipated in the brain-department, so I need a method of loosening all those ideas up without the pressure of turning them into coherent explanations or statements, and that’s what this ever-evolving blog is now going to be now. A place where I sketch out stuff that’s floating through my brain in the hope that it’s useful both to me as an exercise and to you as something to ponder.

Anti-semitism in the Labour party has been on my mind for a long while. Initially I was cautiously dismissive as conflating criticisms of Israel-as-a-state with bigotry to Jews-as-a-race always feels like a bit of a stretch. And it feels like a given that those “of the left” are going to be the anti-racists, the anti-bigots. Look at all the great leftist Jewish heroes! Socialism would be nothing without the Jews! But of course it’s not that simple.

Two articles of late nailed it for me. John Harris’s Why do antisemites think Labour is the party for them? and Jonathan Freedland’s For 2,000 years we’ve linked Jews to money. It’s why antisemitism is so ingrained.

It would appear that leftists are just as susceptible to conspiracy bollocks as the right, which is depressingly not a surprise really, and that our lot can be dragged astray by YouTube’s sidebar of doom or Twitter’s abstraction of nuance as much as their lot. In some ways it reassuring to know that the corporate social silos aren’t just producing fascists - they’re weaponising ideologies into all sorts of unhealthy comfort zones. Algorithmic shaping of humanity into furious bigot-bots is a politically neutral thing.

Related to this, probably, is Olly’s Philosophy Tube’s piece on Brexit which isn’t really about Brexit, thank god, but more about figuring out what democracy is actually for. He splices his video essay with an analysis of the film Arrival, which I like a lot, specifically the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Linguistic relativity. This argues that the language we use affects how we process our perception of the world, a common idea amongst the bilingual who will switch languages they think with.

My train of thought led me down the path of language and literacy in the broadest sense, about how it serves as way to frame, contextualise and connect abstracted ideas in our brains, and how it doesn’t have to be words. I’m using words here to corral my ideas into lines that make sense, but it’s just an organising system like many others. I could use a mind-map, or a mood-board or some other graphical system. I could use some code that takes an input of ideas and organises them through some algorithmic pattern matching. I could put them on Twitter and see what happens. Hell, I could write them in a newsletter which is then processed by your brains.

I’ve identified this kind of thinking as related to Vilém Flusser’s ideas about cameras, specifically that the system that designed the camera is as much an author of the image as the photographer, and that the practice of photography is a collaboration between the human and the camera-as-programmed-device. This can be a fruitful collaboration, but it cannot be dismissed. The Medium is the Message, and all that.

But it hadn’t really occurred to me that this applies as much language-shaped things as much as physical objects and computational systems. Language is a tool and it is shaped as much by external forces as by ourselves. And language is not just systems like English and French but the countless non-verbal and systemic ways we communicate stuff between humans.

I haven’t made any art over the winter. Partly this is because I’ve been too busy to do much at all for myself, which hasn’t been a massive problem as I’ve been enjoying it all on the whole. After a couple of bumps I think I’ve found how to balance my 3-day-week job at Loaf with my freelance work and the next year feels like it should go well.

No art production also hasn’t been a massive problem as my inability to knuckle down and make something has given me a bit of space to consider why I might need art in my life, especially now I’ve pretty much decided I don’t want to be An Artist in the professional sense.

I found myself going back to the start of this “I might be an artist” adventure where I’d done a bunch of what I then called “projects” (they’d now be “works” because language matters LOL) which, in aggregate, looked a bit like an art practice. Since then I’ve effectively tried to reverse engineer that into an art practice than produces works (projects) that give me the same satisfaction, and while it hasn’t been a failure it’s kinda left me a bit stuck, second guessing the outcomes of things before I even start them.

I reminded myself the other day that the fundamental power of art is letting other people see the world as you see it, and the way you do that is by showing them stuff you made. That’s it. It might not work, but it’s that simple.

And it can be anything. It could be this blog post.

I chose the art world because it gave me much more space and freedom to do stuff than the internet culture stuff I was playing around in. I wonder if I’ve found the edges of the art world now and I need something bigger, something less defined. Of course that could be fatal. One always needs a framework.

You might notice I’ve moved the email arm of this communication operation away from Tinyletter to Buttondown, a newsletter service that lets me write in Markdown and isn’t owned by Mailchimp, who are giving me the bad-tastes with their surveillance-capitalism of late. (Sidenote - if anyone knows of a more ethical Mailchimp alternative for marketing emails, please let me know). Buttondown seems OK so far, but the beauty of a newsletter is I can move this list again if I feel the need.

OK, that’s enough bloodletting for today. I feel better now. Thanks for reading, as ever.

November 27, 2018

Public Speaking and the Monoform

Maggie Mae Fish’s analysis of the fascism in Fight Club contains multitudes and is well worth your time if you’re interesting in how what seemed like a slightly heavy-handed piece of dark satire in the 90s has become a bible for some young men in the 2010s, effecting a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, but there was a bit 26 minutes in that really caught my attention because it put a name on something that’s been bugging me for a few years now regarding the plethora of educational and inspirational talks that get given at conferences and elsewhere, and of which I have given many.

It’s Peter Watkins’ idea of the Monoform, “a linear pre-determined format meant to drive the audience towards a specific conclusion”, which Maggie says Fincher is consciously using to create a fatalistic, inevitability to the whole thing.

I do a fair bit of public speaking, and because I’ve done a lot I’m fairly good at it. I know how to carve 30 minutes into a narrative that drives the audience towards a specific conclusion. A conference talk can usually be broken down like so:

  • I’m going to tell you about Z
  • But first let me tell you about W
  • W often leads to X, especially when you consider A
  • A leads to B, which in turn often brings about C
  • C is analagous to Y
  • And Y, as you’ve probably realised by now, takes us to Z
  • Thank you and applause now please.

It’s all very linear and clean, like building something with lego. Everything fits beautifully into place. This is OK when the speaker is trying to communicate a complex idea, or at least lay the groundwork for a complex idea. I use it a lot when I want someone to understand something like photographic exposure, breaking it down into simple concepts and then putting them together in a linear and clean way. It’s a very valuable tool.

When it gets mildly troubling is when the speaker is telling a more personal story. I’ve seen it a lot at culture conferences where some artist or creative is using a platform to raise their profile, because you’d be a fool not to at those sorts of events, by showing their work. It’s often monoformed to the max, turning the doubtless messy and confused practice of creativity into a hero’s journey.

You also see it where speakers are often required to be motivational, to leave the audience inspired. You don’t do that by being vague and uncertain. You do that by finishing with a neatly tied bow.

I discovered this when I gave a talk a couple of years back where I deliberately didn’t have a conclusion, because the subject I was talking about felt too complex. I wanted to bring some questions to the conference without answering them and while I made a passable attempt, how do you end a thing like that? You can’t just stop. You need to conclude. So I concluded by going all meta about how this is where I’m supposed to conclude, which gave me the seed of a mini-monoform letting me finish. But it was a tough one and certainly not one of my best. You can watch it here, scraped from the livestream. The last five minutes are the most germane here.

I enjoy public speaking, because I enjoy the monoform. We’re hurtling towards a very specific destination and it’s my job to get us there in an entertaining and illuminating way. Yes, I could tell the story differently. In order to gain clarity I had to edit tricky facts and smooth awkward events. When it works, a good talk is like an abstract sculpture. But it’s not real. It’s not truth. It’s a story in service of something.

Always be aware of what that something is, and judge accordingly.

November 10, 2018

Debating Fascism and Understanding Mogg

Two articles that could be considered related that I wanted to write about at slightly longer length than the usual Sunday Reads.

Aleksandar Hemon : Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight

I remember in the early 90s the self published comics of Aleksandar Zograf, a Serbian cartoonist whose autobiographical accounts of the war that divided his country rang out with a warning to those in the rest of Europe. This is not some alien place, he said. This was a modern, European country with a relatively cosmopolitan culture. And within a few short years we are killing each other. This could easily happen to you.

I thought of Zograf’s 25 year old warnings while reading this powerful piece by another Aleksandar, a Serbian writer who moved to American in 1992. Aleksandar Hemon frames the current rise of the far-right in the USA with what happened to his friend Zoka who slowly became a Serbian nationalist, supporting the likes of Radovan Karadzic and eventually joining the military efforts to eradicate Muslims. By the time he realised what was happening, it was too late. His friend was lost to fascism.

I’d not heard the Serbian regime of that time described as “fascist” before, because we like to save that term for Hitler, even though the Nazi’s weren’t the only fascists. But by any definition Slobodan Milosevic’s regime was fascist.

And so it’s in our interests, as the ingredients of fascism appear around us at an unnerving frequency, to listen to those who have suffered the outcomes and try to benefit from their hindsight.

Hemon’s big regret is that he attempted to debate fascism as if it were an idea that could be defeated through reasoned argument. But it is better seen as a collection of actions that will destroy people who are different. The ideology is relatively unimportant. If the ideological discussions we’re used to having under the post-war consensus are a game of chess, fascism is the upending of the board. The game is won by eradicating the game.

You cannot argue with fascism.

The next time you see some charismatic figure espousing nationalist rhetoric about “us” and “them”, be it Farage, Robinson or Bannon, being invited on to some media platform to “debate”, think of Serbia and how that turned out.

How to explain Jacob Rees-Mogg? Start with his father’s books

Jacob Rees-Mogg is many things but he’s probably not a fascist. What is he then? This insightful piece looks at the writing of his father, William, that predicted a chaotic future, accelerated by technology.

For 380 breathless pages, Lord Rees-Mogg and a co-author, James Dale Davidson, an American investment guru and conservative propagandist, predicted that digital technology would make the world hugely more competitive, unequal and unstable. Societies would splinter. Taxes would be evaded. Government would gradually wither away. “By 2010 or thereabouts,” they wrote, welfare states “will simply become unfinanceable”. In such a harsh world, only the most talented, self-reliant, technologically adept person – “the sovereign individual” – would thrive.

While dismissed in the UK as a bit of a crank, his book became one of the texts of libertarian Silicon Valley disruptors and we’re now seeing that “Mystic Mogg” might not have been quite so wrong. We’re also seeing his son pushing the borderless “disaster capitalism” ideology along.

Which might seem weird for a passionate Brexit supporter who appears as a paragon of English pride, and I’m still not sure exactly what Jacob is, other than massively objectionable bundle of seeming contradictions. But one thing’s for certain - his personal investments will only benefit from the hardest, most disruptive of Brexits, because that’s what his daddy taught him.