Category Archives: Art

The Happy Accidents of Archaeological Drone Photography

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Admittedly, 80% of the 227 photos are of grass. Blurry, impressionistic, green. The camera was set to time lapse, taking a photo every five seconds, and most people in the Heritage & Play group had a turn. A new person at the controls, and the angry-bee-buzz of the small white drone would signal lift-off.

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We all stood around it, watching it aloft, buzz around, then land. We were amateurs–this is not an effective group shot, but it’s lovely. It’s late autumn in England, the sun hangs low in the sky, prolonging the golden hour and lighting up the still-green fields.

DCIM100GOPRO But who is the author of the photo? It was a time lapse, so was it Neil, who set the camera? Or the “pilot” of the drone? The wind played havoc with the camera gimbal, so the drone propellers show up in some of these photos, like fingers left too close to the lens.

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These are the rejected shots, the extra-archival material that I’m always interested in, the visual archaeological marginalia. Drones, tied to vicious, out-of-the-blue attacks on non-combatants by the United States, are tools of surveillance, of state-crafted terror, and take lovely photos of archaeology in the English countryside. We were happy the rain lifted so we could take better photos; in Pakistan a little boy lamented the death of his 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by a drone strike while picking vegetables, “I no longer love blue skies…In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Even unarmed, the drones are used for “weaponized photography“–there are a host of rules about where and when and why you can fly drones in the UK. Perhaps that’s why I find delight in these marginal, miscellaneous photos–they are goofy, non-standard and non-threatening, revealing an imperfect technological surrogacy. They’re accidentally lovely.

Archaeology Hack-a-thon! The Heritage Jam, Cemeteries & Audioscapes

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Alexis and Sam, hacking away!

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the basic outlines of what a “Jam” should be in the tech/gaming world–everyone comes together to hack on a project together to see what kind of results you can get with very intense focus for a short amount of time–but how would that play out in the world of interpretation and heritage? I just knew that I was excited to finally have a chance to work on something with other visualizers, some of whom I’d known for years. We started out bright and early at 9:00, went through introductions, got an outline of a plan together, then went to York Cemetery to gather primary data…

(Read the rest of the post written by me and Stu Eve at the Day of Archaeology website)

My Name is Oxblood

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Ruskin jar, Black Country Museums.

It hangs there, throbbing heart of ceramic, wildfires under rippling aurora borealis. A rime-frosted pomegranate. A supernova in a jar.

Oxblood, sang de boeuf, lang yao hong, jihong, is the most magnificent and the most difficult of glazes. It is the red red red of heartbeats, misbehaves in kilns, sliding off the shoulders of the pot into a clotted puddle. You must apply it in great gouts of crimson so the copper will reduce and go red instead of green. It is assumed that this discovery was a happy accident, known as early as the Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and rediscovered during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The technique was lost, rediscovered, and lost time and time again.

The folklore around this particular hue for ceramics is also thickly applied, with varied accounts of a Chinese emperor jailing potters for failing to produce the proper color, a potter so frustrated that he threw himself into the kiln, thus producing the elusive red, and a faithful potter’s daughter was so incensed at her father’s imprisonment that she stepped into the kiln, also with a red result.

Much later, the “father” of French ceramics, Theodore Deck copied furiously from exoticized Egyptian, Islamic, Japanese, and Chinese styles, including the sang de boeuf and incorporated a  flambé glaze, applying it to art deco pottery forms. In England William Howson Taylor of Ruskin Pottery (named after the writer John Ruskin) sought the sang de boeuf as one of the most difficult expressions of pottery as an art form. He guarded the secrets of this glaze carefully, and burned his notes before his death. Bernard Moore is his contemporary, producing similar wares and I wondered if there was a rivalry, but I found nothing.

In 1925, the British Museum received a gift from a “generous Hong Kong donor in the name of Keechong Hong.” This gift included a tall, slender vase, described as a “typical specimen, with faintly crackled glaze and red of cherry tint in the thinner parts, but darkening into oxblood where it has flowed thick on the shoulders and above the base.” This compares well with an earlier gift from Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, and shows the celadon lip–the delicate, singular green yielding to the more furious red.

Container series, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions

Container series, 2009, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions

It’s this contrast between celadon and oxblood that modern potter Liu Jianhua plays with, the red finally filling the vessel, diving up and inside, like it belonged there all along.

So this, this a from a non-ceramicist–a partial, ragged run through the most elusive of colors, one that maddens, demands the most exquisite attention and craft, and is reborn over and over again.

The title of the post refers to My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk. 

 

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

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Later this week I am presenting a paper in Dan HicksArchaeology and Photography session at the Photography and Anthropology conference at the British Museum. Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

But isn’t a photographer who can’t read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate?” (Walter Benjamin, 1968)

Archaeology has a long, complex, and fascinating entanglement with photography, a relationship that continues into the digital age. To understand the florescence of digital photography in archaeology, we must inhabit an interdisciplinary space, a space that lies between the compound field of visual studies and archaeology but that also attends to issues of representation, authority, and authenticity. Being conversant in visual analysis can help to create more robust visualization strategies in archaeology, but can have unintended consequences. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of both analog and digital archaeological photographs exposes interesting disciplinary shifts and uninterrogated power dynamics in the field. While digital photography is changing the way that archaeologists are thinking about and doing archaeology, it also reveals the complexity of the relationships present on an archaeological project, in the local community and online. In this, photography can act as a dangerous supplement for archaeology, a Derridean concept W.J.T. Mitchell ascribed to disrupting the cohesion of traditionally defined disciplines.

In this paper I will discuss the process of creating a theory-laden practice of archaeological photography, using the photographic record from the sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Tall Dhiban in Jordan. Through this record I will investigate photography and visualization as a particularly productive instance of the dangerous supplement. Finally, I will explore the implications of merging this theory-laden practice with emancipatory strategies to achieve a more inclusive, reflexive archaeological praxis.

Broken Houses by Ofra Lapid

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If I created a venn diagram of my interests, these photographs from Ofra Lapid would be a beautiful fit for the intersection of site depositional processes (ruined houses), dioramas, and photography. While these are more akin to papercraft than true dioramas, I love that they reference digitality–when I create a 3D reconstruction of a structure, I take photos such as these to create skins or textures for the buildings. This is obviously one step further, the creation of a 3D structure that is then printed out and reassembled as a small model.

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I’d love to make papercraft models of some of the buildings that I have recreated, but most of the software is PC-only. I could work around it, but it is definitely in the “TO DO…LATER” category.

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Special Delivery – Endless Canvas’ Huge Warehouse Graffiti Show

SWAMPY – from Fecalface.com.

I’ve been more peripatetic than usual lately; we subletted our apartment in anticipation of a visa that was a month late in coming so I’ve been housesitting all over the East Bay. I’ve stayed in four different places, all inhabited by archaeologists–I’ve started making jokes about how I’m studying their settlement patterns. I thought about drawing plans of the layouts of the houses, but then felt like it would be an invasion of privacy–so what kind of implications does that have for archaeological practice?

Special Delivery – by Fecalface.com

Anyway, last Saturday night I took the bus down from my latest domicile in Richmond to check out Endless Canvas’ unbelievable “Sistine Chapel” of graffiti art in a warehouse in West Berkeley. It was held in the former Flint Ink building, a warehouse that has been vacant since 1999. When I walked up to the warehouse I was stunned to see a huge line full of families along with the requisite cool kids. The three floors of the warehouse were lit with industrial spot lights and there were multiple DJ setups, infusing the concrete with thudding hip hop and techno. The building was absolutely covered and I walked through the warehouse several times, up stairs, looking down elevator shafts and out onto the nearby train tracks.

There were several gargantuan pieces by my favorite Bay Area artists–GATS, SWAMPY, Deadeyes along with a few I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have my DSLR, so I took a few shots with my iphone, but I felt that it was mostly unnecessary–so many people were shooting that you could probably reconstruct the entire installation from images on the web. Besides, I’m not sure I could really add to the gorgeous documentation:

Devote, by Endless Canvas

Along with the photographs are a series of videos that show the intense connection to place that graffiti artists have and how they express this through their art. The videos also features a “buffer,” a guy that goes around and paints over the graffiti art and so is deeply familiar with all of the different artists.

When I walk through Oakland the graffiti resonates so strongly with my experience of the city. New pieces, old pieces, new artists, artists referencing each other–it’s an intense dialog with place that can be both intimate, you won’t see certain pieces or stickers unless you walk the street and grandiose, such as the huge pieces that welcome you back to Oakland after you go under the Bay in the BART. Graffiti in Oakland is a passionate expression of defiance and home and I feel deeply lucky that I managed to be around for its effloresce.

Spanish Fresco “Restoration” – Why is it funny?

The conservators saw it first. Over the years I’ve been lucky to work on archaeological projects with conservation teams on site–they pick up the pieces when we reveal something that is too delicate or too sensitive for archaeologists to move without risk of further damaging the object. They conserve paintings, wood, metal, pottery, bone, and can fix your site flip-flops if they snap. They have tiny tools and lots of glue–they’re our miracle workers.

One of them will be called in to meticulously scrape off the handiwork of this elderly parishioner, spending countless hours removing flecks of the offending paint. So, yeah, they saw this and cringed. Good luck to the conservator that has to tackle this one. Oof.

The second person referencing this link thought it was hilarious. I admit, when I clicked on the link and saw the photo, I laughed too, and then shook my head. It was reported on Boing Boing as “Fresco Restored” and the comments section is split: about a third of the commenters are horrified, with one stating that “I feel like absolutely everyone would be better off if news of this hadn’t spread very far. I know I’m not better off for knowing.” The majority think that the “restoration” is hilarious.

Is it the rendition of a bizarre Jesus with his black eyes and strange tongue that is funny? Or that an elderly lady did it? I am not arguing that it isn’t funny, I was laughing too, but why? A recent story on NPR described anthropologist Robert Lynch who studies humor but who also does stand-up comedy. Roughly, “you laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs.” The “restoration” struck a chord with some of us. I’m not sure what this chord was–the destruction of cultural heritage usually doesn’t elicit a chuckle. I think this reaction calls into question what we think is cultural heritage and what is the appropriate treatment of such.

Finally, I was wondering if the conservators needed to be called in at all. From what little I know about it, the “restoration” was an act of devotion; the restored Jesus is a very personal Jesus, with bare reference to the original. If it offends, it might be easier to primer over the whole thing, project an image of the original at the right scale, and then repaint it entirely. They were planning to repair and repaint the painting anyway, perhaps we should leave this lady’s Jesus as part of the palimpsest of devotion.