Near Now Fellowship Application

This Spring I applied for the Near Now fellowship. I was unsuccessful, which is a shame, but there were a lot of applicants for two awards, so maybe it wasn't too surprising. But I did put a lot of work, and a lot of myself, into my application process and am keen to get something from that effort.

Here's the statement / proposal I submitted. The language may seen crunched by the word-count and skewed towards the aims of the institution, and I will probably re-write it in proper English at some point soon. But I think it's all fairly clear.

I'm not 100% sure what I'll do with this. At the very least I'd like to turn it into a year-long activity, maybe funded by ongoing donations / subscriptions via Patreon or similar. At this momement I don't have any real desire to plough more effort into sending funding applications into the void, though this will probably change in the future.

If you want to see what I'll end up doing, best to subscribe to my newsletter.

Anyway, here it is.

What are you hoping to explore during your Fellowship? (What is the research and early-stage development of an ambitious new work that you are proposing?)

The following statements form the basis of my fellowship:

  • We say we seek truth but actually seek useful abstractions that make sense of a complex and confusing world. From folktales to science, we build abstractions that sample, introducing subjective bias. When bias is shared locally this is not seen as a problem, but globalism and the internet mean shared abstractions are not a given.

  • Artists create abstractions with media tools. The rapid development of digital media has made art-making more accessible than ever before. Increased adoption requires these tools be centralised beyond the layperson's control. How is artmaking affected by this? Do we work with or for the algorithm?

  • Until very recently the notion that reality is subjective was for the counter-culture fringe, of little relevance to surviving the day-to-day. But authoritarians and populists have weaponised this: Putin's playbook, Trump dismissing fake news, Brexiteers rejecting experts. The counter-culture is the culture. Can everyday life survive this uncertainty?

I'm anchored by two C20th thinkers:

Vilém Flusser's philosophy of photography, that the camera itself is the true author of a photograph, can be applied to the obscured agendas of social media platforms and algorithms.

Robert Anton Wilson, the counter-culture thinker whose concepts of reality tunnels foresaw filter bubbles and whose ideas are seeing a revival.

My art practice seeks to unify these strands to help make sense of our world.

How does your proposal for the Near Now Fellowship relate to your current experience and existing body of work and how will it push forward your practice and career?

The fellowship would come at a critical time in my art practice and career. A major 2017 exhibition of work on AI and surveillance concluded my three year association with Birmingham Open Media and I'm now ready for higher levels of activity and audience.

Though my work is research led, my practice is outside academia and I am entirely self-taught. The fellowship would allow me to build the framework of knowledge and support, and the benefit of time for critical reflection, often unavailable to me as a freelance artist.

My art practice combines a number of interests, which I would look to develop and combine:

  • Cameras as tool for mediated seeing, constraining vision to create art. By building camera obscuras and leading photo walks I focus on the act of looking through a camera.
  • The strange power of images, abstractions of reality requiring the viewer to creatively engage, rebuilding time and space in their imagination, informed by experience and understanding.
  • The way digital images exist as data, requiring software and hardware to visualise, making the realisation of images, and their meaning, subject to endless variables. What happens between the lens and the screen?
  • Machine learning algorithms are the key emerging technology of our era, defining how we interact through computers in daily life. They are in equal parts fascinating and banal, reassuring and terrifying. They will infuse the media tools of the future and need to be understood.

How do you imagine that the work emerging from the Fellowship might be staged in a showcase/ open studio event (or other experience)?

An important part of my practice is processing and communicating the ideas that interest me through my work. I would use the fellowship to develop ways of using lens-based art to make these ideas engaging to a broad audience.

I foresee an experience similar to the Birmingham Camera Obscura which we have described as "a machine for making smiles". This simple device shows a vivid image of its surroundings that is simultaneously real and unreal and leads to many questions and discussions about light and image-making.

I would strive to make a work that has a similar effect, creating a joyful confusion followed by a desire for explanation, focused on the power of creating abstractions of truth.

I am inspired by sound-artist Brian Duffy who became obsessed with how circuit-bending electronic toys let him work with ideas from systems theorist Buckminster Fuller. His initial cacophonous works saw audiences fleeing with horror, so he started The Modified Toy Orchestra, a joyful Kraftwerk-esque ensemble that made people very happy and willing to seek out his ideas.

Much of the work I see dealing with post-Snowden surveillance culture and algorithmic capitalism tends to be terrifying, and often with good reason, but sometimes to the detriment of having an effect. I would like to create something interactive, enjoyable and empowering, that deals with issues that sometimes feel beyond us by making them understandable.

What is your proposed format and content for a practical workshop open to the public?

I like to regularly deliver practical workshops, to schools, the general public and other artists, that are related to my art practice as I find they keep me grounded and focused. As such I have a range of formats and contents to draw on.

The format would likely use cameras as the foundation, a familiar artistic tool found in most pockets, drawing on aspects from the following:

  • A drop-in camera obscura workshop, using cardboard and plastic magnifying glasses to create working cameras that focus light into images, demystifying the camera in one's pocket.
  • A "speculative cameras" workshop, exploring tools and methods for capturing the world such as photogrammetry, infrared, lidar, slow-mo, slit-scan, etc.
  • Further development of AI for Artists, a discussion-based workshop. Run for the Art AI festival in Leicester, this looked at how artists have embraced and interrogated open-source machine learning tools, which I am keen to develop.

The content for the workshop will emerge from the work but might explore how individuals can draw radically different conclusions from the same experiences, to the point where discussion seems impossible. I would like participants to deal with filter bubbles, confirmation bias, tribalism and other things that issues, such as Brexit, have brought to the fore.

Activities will encourage participants to engage with how we seek truth and shared understanding, to develop news ways of seeing in a post-truth world.