Monthly Archives: September 2011

What do gifs want?

W.J.T. Mitchell’s classic book asks, What do pictures want? That is, what is it exactly that visuals do and how do they do it? Since this relatively early salvo into the thriving interdisciplinary field of visual studies there have been several qualitative and/or quantitative studies of photographs (see Sarah Pink, Gillian Rose, Kress and van Leeuwen, the list goes on) yet similar analyses on movies have remained elusive. Add music and dialogue and movement and your content analysis is suddenly many many thousands of pages long and ten years in the making.

Yet out of the flashy html mess of the early world wide web comes a digital object that severely erodes the boundary between still photographs and movies–the gif. (Here’s a nice little history of the gif) Even if you don’t remember the rotating skulls and bursting fireballs of the mid-1990s, the animated punctum of Jamie Beck’s photography probably caught your attention:

Beck calls these gifs cinemagraphs, and they resist classification as photographs or as movies, but play with elements of both. The constant loop of the movement in a gif is a fantastic synesthetic citation of digital music.

On the less “high-art” side of the spectrum is the admittedly low-brow joke gifs, a joke on a digital gum wrapper, the low rez and jagged movement unconsciously exuding a Lumiere brothers quality. My favorite being, of course, Animals Being Dicks.

They tell the shortest story, the briefest moment of time, soundlessly and then on loop. The first viewing is confusing, surprising, then we watch the clip with full knowledge on the second run through, anticipating the joke, and then a third, relishing the details we missed on the first or second pass.

I’ve been experimenting a little with the very short video form, not yet gifs, but similar:

There are a couple of programs that you can use to apply hipstamatic-like filters to your videos that are fun to play with, but you can also edit it on youtube using their tools. Obviously I haven’t fully explored the medium, but it is a good change for me from the hyper-focus on photography. The tiny film/gif pushes at the boundaries between video and photography, with occasionally delightful results.

Archaeology and Anonymous

While I was writing about authorship and reflexivity in digital archaeology in my dissertation the other day, I felt I should also write about the converse, anonymity and archaeology.

Though I have provided a strong argument in favor of transparent and reflexive authorship of digital objects, it would be remiss to ignore the anonymizing potential of the internet for political action in archaeology. With the increased visibility of individuals who participate in the role of the public intellectual on the internet, there are several instances where it could be desirable to remain anonymous. While it can certainly be argued that there is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet through the various methods of tracking individual ISPs and through the small and self-selecting pool of archaeologists who participate on the internet and their research interests, some archaeologists use tactical anonymity for information sharing in risky contexts. For example many prospective graduate students and recent Ph.D.s use anonymous wikis to update their fellow position-seekers regarding the process of selection and hiring. Using wikis in this way can combat the opacity of academic process for the traditionally disempowered and disenfranchised candidate pool. In another example, a high-profile academic archaeologist maintained a veneer of anonymity to translate and share information regarding a government coup that not only brought misery to the citizens in the country but also destroyed years of research and directly affected the cultural heritage in the country. Anonymous participation by informed citizenry can certainly contribute to the emancipatory power of the internet, albeit at a cost of devalued information that is not backed by known scholarship.

Ugh, dissertation speak–I’ve tried to avoid it, but it creeps in. Anyway, as important as I believe it is to promote transparency and public intellectual citizenship, sometimes a veneer of anonymity can be compelling and powerful. Case in point, I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about peer review and unnecessary cruelty on the part of reviewers who hide behind the anonymous process.

The ultimate manifestation of anonymity on the internet (such as it is) would be Anonymous, an amorphous internet phenomenon that centers around message boards, pornography, and captioned photographs. In recent years, Anonymous has become self-aware to a certain extent and has started to marshal its forces to various causes. While this was at first manifest in taking revenge on individuals that the message board community targeted, such as school bullies, a girl who threw live puppies into a river, and white supremacist radio hosts. They’ve gone on to attack corporations, religious institutions, and pretty much anything that they can muster enough resentment against. While they are ultimately a chaotic force, Anonymous is an unexpected, fascinating undercurrent on the internet.

While there are no direct links between archaeology and this internet phenomenon, it provides an interesting thought experiment–of what meaning and value is Anonymous to academic practice, but to archaeology more specifically? What could we learn from the monumental churn of ideas, images, and memes that such a phenomenon produces? Could we use anonymous commentary to improve archaeological scholarship and methodology, or would it turn into the very worst of Anonymous–meaningless, banal, backbiting? How would archaeology change if we weren’t afraid to offer frank critiques of each others’ work?

Just a few thoughts on a rainy Bristol Sunday…I should get back to the diss.

Assembling Archaeology in Sheffield

I immediately regretted my decision to walk to the University of Sheffield. My hair whipped around my eyes and mouth and I had to keep dodging blowing garbage. The hurricane that had ripped up the east coast of the United States was making its presence known on the other side of the Atlantic. This was represented on the news by what looked like a giant invasion of white ghosts in a psychedelic, swirling arc across Ireland and Northern England. (Learning about how the English talk about the weather has been an education on its own–who’d’ve known that the forecast could be “white cloud,” “gray cloud,” or simply “dull.”)

I ran into the conference room for the Assembling Archaeology seminar late and windswept, but quickly found a seat at the back and settled in to hear Helen Wickstead speak about art and archaeology. She memorably spoke about some of the annoying aspects of conducting this “cross-disciplinary” research, in short, that the only relevant art within archaeology is illustration and depiction of antiquities; that art/archaeology is “self expression” and not research; most research of art/archaeology looks mostly at the boundaries between the two; finally, that art is primarily used to communicate with the public. I think it was this last point that riled up a certain Twittering audience member, but I think it was just a misunderstanding of terms and positioning.

Next, Bill Bevan and Bob Johnston presented separately the fantastic photographic work that Bill Bevan was doing as the Leverhulme visiting artist at the University of Bristol. His residency and the work that he produced definitively proved the value of such a program. It would have been amazing to be able to have an artist in residence in anthropology at UC Berkeley to collaborate with on projects. I asked my first annoying question–did he actually do any kind of content or semiotic analysis of the assemblage of photos that he had created during his time as an artist in residence. Sadly he had not. I’m not sure how useful it would be to analyze your own photos, but I found the big analysis of the photos taken over the years at Catalhoyuk extremely informative to my own photo practices. I really should publish that sometime. I also wanted to ask him nerd questions about his camera, editing process and whether or not he uses Creative Commons–judging by the image protection set up on his webpage, I’d guess not. I just wanted to look at your metadata! And maybe link to an image! Honest.

Paul Evans is another Leverhulme artist in residence, creating and interacting with bioarchaeology, in particular, bones that have been modified in some way. I highly recommend his blog, Osteography. His work ranges from very intense and gripping:

Third Eye by Paul Evans

to a bit more lighthearted:

Astragoloi Wallpaper by Paul Evans

I was happy to see my friend Aaron Watson again, who has a finished version of his Stones From The Sky film, which combines digital photographs, video, and 3D animation seamlessly into a fantastic meditation on the stone axes and quarries of the Lake District.

Cursus tag by Mark Antsee

Probably the most entertaining presentation of the day was Mark Antsee speaking about his work reflecting on the Stonehenge Cursus. He began by tagging the landscape (in non-permanent charcoals and chalk) with a line representation of the Cursus, then, influenced by the deep ties that the region has with the military, elaborated on this work by making flags and cow trough sarcophagi around the landscape.

Cursus flag by Mark Antsee

I particularly liked that he framed his work as a provocation, a response to the provocation of the act of archaeology, particularly the act of digging in the landscape. Mark was able to reframe this monument, add a sense of disorientation to this well-known (though often overshadowed by its neighbor Stonehenge) monument. I loved that he managed this all while staying within the bounds of what you can feasibly do at historic monuments–I’ve often struggled with methods of inscribing landscape or indicating that there was interpretive material available without getting the park rangers and such angry with me. Anyway, he also made sure all of the seminar participants were similarly inscribed: My very own Cursus Awareness bracelet!

Segsbury Project by Simon Callery

Simon Callery presented the work he had done a decade ago wherein he lay down plaster directly on top of the excavated chalk ditches, creating a curvy, chalk-embedded representation of the site surface. He spoke about the long collaboration he had with the University of Oxford archaeologists and spoke at length about the true nature of this collaboration. He felt it was key that neither artists nor archaeologists “leaned” on the other’s work but rather explored the question, “what is it about questions that we ask do we share?” That is, what are archaeologists and artists interested in and how can we use that shared interest as a collaborative space.

ADDED – (sorry, I skipped a page in my notes)

Antonia Thomas presented another perspective as an archaeologist who made an incursion into an art gallery, presenting art and artifacts associated with excavations in Orkney. She took up residence in the art gallery, much like the artists who come and live with archaeologists in the field, and transformed that space into a more ambiguous blend of art and archaeology. Her reaction to the space of an art gallery is probably the same one I would have had–she recorded it in 1:20 on a sheet of permatrace. I probably would have phased it as well, or started peeling off the layers of paint in one of the corners to understand past installations.

The last presenter was Angela Piccini who showed her video work as she spoke about her experimental video work and using the camera as part of her research process. She is interested in working against the aesthetics of film and narrative to find the “anti-beauty” in place. I asked her how it was to work against narrative when digital editing tools enforce placing video clips on a timeline, etc. It was nice to be able to talk to another archaeologist who deals in film, and really made me want to delve into one of the several projects that I don’t have time for right now.

In all it was a good experience, especially in that I was able to see some folks that I’ve met over the years and check out the progression of their work in particular and of the dialog surrounding art and archaeology in general. I’m happy that we seem to be moving on from the same discussions (as noted by Wickstead) into a more productive space. I came away both inspired and motivated to continue my work in the art/archaeology/digital realm. One quick criticism is that while most of the speakers had a defined online presence, much of their work was either hard to find or annoying/hard to link. It is tempting to just leave these people and works out of the discussion.

Anyway, as Angela Piccini said, (and I paraphrase) “I hope that the relationship between art and archaeology continues in its grubby way, afraid of neither the banal nor the sublime.”

An American in Bristol-town

Two magpies are sitting on a chimney outside my window. They’re nodding and peering around, feathers ruffling in the slight wind. Behind them the sky is cinematic–so far English skies have most others beat in terms of cloud variety, color and just general confusion. Some of the clouds race north along the horizon, and a small gray puff wanders S/SW and still more hover, unimpressed by the action.

I’m glad it’s both of the magpies though, as I’ve been told that you have to salute a single magpie and I’ve been gamely waving my hands at the poor things for the last few days. I never really expected to live in England, not like many Americans, but Bristol is fantastic–a nice mix of city living with a great art scene and a sleepy old shipping town where shops close at random hours and a “late night” barber shop near my house advertises being open “until 7 in the evening!”

The Bristol museum is incredibly well curated (hopefully get around to posting about that later) and has a series of old maps of Bristol hanging around the second floor. Walking around the exhibit brought me through the days when there was a stately house and a big square, then a slow creep of blocks and streets along the river front, then the block of housing where I live appeared, up north, some time between the 1850s and 1880s. I’m perched on a hill, and as I write I can see a wide swath of chimneys, red tile, stone. The high street (Americans, read: main street, with all the shops) is only a block away and I wandered down there this afternoon to the green grocer, passing by the fish monger, the butcher, and a few local pubs. For something that was relatively unplanned, we managed to find a very sweet place to live for a couple of months.

When my friend Guy came to visit Oakland he found that he was much more culture-shocked than when he was in Brazil or many other places. Things were just a half-step…off. I think I understand that better now. Ultimately, Bristol is an art, hip college town and that caters to my taste pretty well, but there’s always that half-second of hesitation after you’ve asked for a train ticket or another pint, “ah, American.”

It’s a nice thing though, to write your dissertation in relative solitude, without the endless whirlwind of social things that I tend to have when I’m in places where I actually know people. I miss my friends, I get lonely, but after I write my daily allotment, the back streets of Bristol are mine to explore. If only things weren’t so damn expensive, I’d be set.