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City Reflection / Street Text: using mobile networking technologies to facilitate reflective workshop practice on location

Abstract: This case study sets out to reflectively explore student and staff experiments with writing and image-making in unfamiliar locations, exploring the place of writing in the drifting space of the street, and the online world of user-generated content. Over the past two years, my colleagues and I at University College for the Creative Arts, Maidstone, have been developing strategies for teaching photographic and moving image practice using such hybrid combinations of text and image in the context of the street workshop and the studio. The coming together of word and image in these events has been informed by ideas of reflective and collaborative practice, combined with a desire to map new spaces supportive to the activities of reading and writing – both topographical and institutional. Students’ involvement with discursive practices expands beyond established disciplinary boundaries, and images become inseparable from written or spoken discourse. In trying to open up the black box, for students and for ourselves, the teaching team at Maidstone has attempted to make the familiar unfamiliar, a process of estrangement which has opened up some exciting creative possibilities for future practice.

The activities explored in this study were designed for year 2 undergraduate students, with the aim of promoting critical discussion of many of the practices in which they already engage in the role of consumer or end user, such as the online critique of images, or participation in discussion forums. Encouraging students to engage critically with the distribution technologies available to the contemporary image maker, such as blogging, online book production, and instantaneous distribution, demands that students confront and deconstruct the social and technical functions of these technologies.

Keywords: Photoblog, Photography and New Media, Field Trip, Group Working, Virtual, Online, City, Psychogeography, Reflective Practice, Writing

Author information: Adam Brown is Senior Lecturer in Photography and Media Arts at University for the Creative Arts, Maidstone.

Date: January 2010

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In this paper, I wish to explore a group learning activity that relocated the art college environment, as working space and space of critique, to the streets of London, and examine what is revealed about both looking at the city, and looking at the subject. Students participated in an activity which allowed them to make work and upload it to a virtual working space over the course of a one-day field trip, producing an online record of both their making and reflective activity. The particular street workshop in question grew from initiatives undertaken within the undergraduate degree in Photography and Media Arts at UCCA Maidstone. Artist educators Gareth Polmeer and Sebastian Edge worked with me on the development of some of these initiatives. In the development of the course at Maidstone, and in my individual teaching, I am interested in using new technologies to bridge the institutional division between theory and practice, but by approaching theory from the direction of practice.

The theoretical armature for the project is derived from personal practice, as well as the relational aesthetics of Nicholas Bourriaud (1998) and the work of art historian Mieke Bal (2002), for whom the outcome of artistic practice can function as a theoretical object, a thing which performs a critical function.  Institutionally, critical work occurs in the operation of language upon an image or object: Bal opens up many ways in which visual artwork performs a critical operation on language: indeed her methodology, though carried by language, allows the work itself to be critical, rather than the subject of criticism:

Theory … is not an instrument of analysis, to be “applied” to the art object supposedly serving it but in fact subjecting it. Instead it is a discourse that can be brought to bear on the object at the same time as the object can be brought to bear on it (Bal, 2002)

In the unit under discussion, these ideas are expanded into an exploration of how such positions are embedded in the design of the technologies that students commonly use to make work. The products of technological media, whether images of the city or the human subject can be produced intentionally as theoretical objects. Workshops can be developed with the intention of producing such objects, and collaborators / students can be encouraged to produce their own, in an attempt to overturn the dominance of formalism which is still prevalent in UK art education despite the developments of the past forty years (See Addison, N. (2004) and Steers, J (2003)). To develop a way of teaching the technique of imaging, in such a way as key critical concerns are embedded in the workshop, is a project waiting to be developed.  Certainly such a project would suit the first and second year of undergraduate education, in which independent, project-based learning takes place in the context of facilitating independent, self-directed approaches. Ideas springing from relational aesthetics cannot help but stimulate discussion of, not only the social situation of the art work, but the social situation in which the learner finds him or her self.

Theoretical Object: Exploded Field / City Reflection

The ten–week second year undergraduate unit Shifting Destinations was devised partly in order to draw students away from taking the wall or the critique as the eventual destination for their images, moving or still, and to encourage them to use collaborative and discursive practices in the generation of project work. Having arrived at this point through various routes – but mostly through one of A-level followed by foundation study – there seemed to be a tendency amongst students to see the finished form of the photographic image as an auratic object that belonged on a wall. In stage 1, the necessity for students to look closely at individual images, coupled with a need to understand quality issues in the production of the print, meant that this mode of display was most suited to project work, but there was always encouragement to move away and experiment with the book form, moving image production or installation by the provision of optional units by which students could reinforce their skills base. For many students the wall became a kind of comfort zone: Shifting Destinations explicitly stressed the production of mobile, reproducible and multiple forms of image as potential output.

In September 2007, as part of the briefing for this unit, Gareth Polmeer and myself took a group of students out into the street to make images and upload them to the web on the day. I had attempted a similar exercise in Maidstone the previous year; entitled ‘Exploded Field’, it was (in an ad hoc way) generously hosted by a well-known chain of coffee shops, who didn’t mind twenty art students taking over the first floor of their outlet for four hours.

In the second instance, City Reflection, we made use of the universal availability of Wi-Fi access throughout the City of London, purchasing tokens online, and dipping in and out of various chain pubs and cafes, buying drinks to qualify for free access. Before the day, students were inducted into the necessary technical procedures for the day, the blog was tested, and the year group subdivided into three smaller teams. The framework for the day was explained to them: as they made their way through the city, teams were encouraged to upload to the blog images they had made in the street, and comment on each others’ images by adding comments to blog posts. The rules of the game were defined such that they could post comments of a metaphorical, informational, reflective or critical nature on the work of other groups, but when posting their own images, they should limit their posts to the purely descriptive.

A discussion concerning anonymity and privacy took up a considerable amount of time during the unit briefing. Students were concerned as to whether their images would be critiqued fairly. There was a general consensus that participants wished to remain anonymous while online, due to these fears. This appeared curious in the context of a group which had participated in many live critique situations in previous projects, and which normally had a great deal to say about each others’ work. This issue was raised during the discussion. There was a feeling that, due to prior negative experiences in online situations, including social networking sites commonly used by students, anonymity would protect against personal repercussions from (either perceived or real) harsh criticism or personally wounding comments. Kris Cohen (2005) remarks that the kind of comments left by visitors to photoblog sites are generally limited to formal discussions of technique, or praise. We attempted to encourage the group to give – and receive – critical comments in the spirit of the course, but also to understand that the critiquing of each visual product was only one possible direction in which the discussion could move: comments could be informational, ideas and locations could be exchanged, and images seen as contributing to a collective product, rather than the output of individual creators.

A coach trip was arranged, and on the day the group assembled at the Barbican Centre, chosen as a suitable public space due to its location and the possibility of inclement weather. After a short briefing and equipment check, the three teams of eight students were sent out to navigate their way through the city, shooting images and stopping at scheduled points to confer with each other online. Participants were encouraged to comment on each others’ posts. Some took part visually, some uploaded found text relevant to the images posted. In a subversive activity, some participants downloaded images which others had posted to the blog, manipulated them digitally, and reposted the altered images. William Blake’s tomb became Banksy’s, and other images gained additional subjects. One student brought a one-shot analogue fisheye camera, and processed his film in a one-hour lab, uploading his images half way through the day. At the end of the event, the group reconvened at the Barbican and a debriefing session concluded the activity.

The city built: Student work.

The work submitted by students at the conclusion of the 10-week project took various forms. Some chose to use individual blogs as spaces of personal reflection, some used less technological media, but the majority of students successfully realised work which involved collaborative processes in their origination, applied an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the relationship between context and process, and manifested itself in a form ready for dissemination, if not already disseminated.

In Sam Llwyd’s work, in which he films his canvases being stolen from a bus shelter at night, the city becomes a place in which is staged the transgression of accepted laws of ownership and property, particularly in relation to the artwork – which is, in an old fashioned sense, a gift of the artist to the world – its content is beyond financial value (cultural capital). The unique, auratic artwork becomes something like graffiti in reverse. The graffiti writer appropriates public space, but Llwyd, in giving his work away by abandoning it, allows the anonymous, uncelebrated collector to emerge from the darkness of the city street and commit an act of appropriation on his own authored works. In recent years, this strategy has been adopted by street artists such as Adam Neate (Shields, 2008). The finished video was published on the student’s own blog, created to showcase his experiments within the remit of the unit.

In Laura Nolan’s project, her doctored ‘tart cards’ derive from conversations on social networking sites, and images taken in nightclubs in Maidstone, but language and image are combined and re-posted into material space. They return to the streets of the town, placing the language, the look and the attitude back where it came from. In essence a very angry piece, it gains its power by the detournement of public space following a textbook Situationist strategy – the collision of vernacular text and popular imagery, returned to the street to gain critical force. The use of Polaroid instant film deploys a technology that is designed for the creation of immediate, one-off productions, its spontaneity referencing the user-centred nature of web 2.0 technologies.

Cassandra Vervoort’s viral books similarly allow for appropriation by their users. The reader of one book is asked to create another in response, taking either word or image as the origin of new word / image pieces. The books are part of an endless self-replicating system, each one arising from the last, the link between them being the action and interpretation of the reader. There are misreadings, the possibility of rudeness and disrespect, and the whole project threatens to teeter on the brink of chaos. The use of instant images – Polaroids – activates creative spontaneity, with very little reflection – the medium becomes one of the restrictions which the artist places on the participant. In fact, the activity of the book / image makers becomes graffiti like, in that it is phatic, more concerned with claiming space, than saying anything meaningful. Single words, printed in large text – ‘Hole’, etc. are interpreted by different readers in ways that are unexpected, dumb, moving…

Another student’s work from the same unit activated group concerns about the place of the self image in public space. Lee Gavin’s projected montage Mosaic is an A0 tiled montage composed of jpegs trawled from the publicly accessible pages of a popular social networking site, set up by members of his year group at Maidstone, plus images appropriated from pages that link to these, and pages that link to these. When the image was projected in an interim critique (and for once, I had not seen the work in advance of its unveiling), it produced one of the most effective audience reactions I have experienced in this context – mostly gasps of horror, followed by a disruptive and vocal discussion, very much orchestrated by Lee, and very much in keeping with the intentions of the unit. Most of the group were unaware that these images existed, or of the sheer quantity of representations of themselves which were publicly accessible at the time and constantly growing.

The effects of this piece were multiple: the group looked at itself as a group for the first time, the individual visualised his or her wider online context for the first time, and the individual saw his or her self as the unwitting subject of a stranger’s gaze.

The collection of images, in its scale, has a monumentality and power. It is like a memorial. It manifests, in one statement, the existence of the mass. It counterweighs the opposing force – particularly manifest in Web 2.0 technology – of the significance of the individual. Maybe this is what was so uncomfortable about viewing the piece. I have seldom come across a piece which makes individual, spontaneous and willed action so visible as mass action, and subject to the intentions of others.

Unfortunately it has not been possible to reproduce Mosaic in its entirety due to possible intellectual property issues.

City Reflection:

The point of producing the blog as part of the briefing activity was not to arrive at a beautiful presentation or even a coherent archive, but to produce a city, in a sense of a messy conflation of multiple points of view, meaningful and pointless decisions, which can be perceived as form, or spatially unified by a viewer who could themselves be multiple. Viewing the blog online, there are both interesting and predictable examples of student work, some risky excursions and some bad decisions, but as a whole, it has the quality of some people experimenting with the creative potential of a medium, who have previously engaged with web 2.0 technology only as consumers. As the opening, and establishing activity of the 10 week unit, it succeeded in launching some students into the territory of relational aesthetics and group working, but importantly reduced students’ dependence on the framed and mounted image, the production of which had characterised previous years’ work.

Michel De Certeau (1984) conceives of the city street as the location for multiple, overlaid speech acts, performed by those who walk in the city, with the street and its specificities of location forming a living language from which these acts are composed. City walkers both enunciate speech acts and participate in dialogue, oscillating between the phatic and the discursive. The ‘tagger’ or graffiti writer uses a phatic act to delineate both individual belonging and territorialisation by a subcultural group. Seen individually, the ‘tag’ is phatic, but embedded in social practice, it represents part of a complex culture of call-and-response, an architecture of linguistic signs (Baudrillard, 1993). What makes the difference is representation –the way in which the city or part of the city is conceived as a subject by its ‘speakers’ and by its observers. Representations are made both by those who participate at street level, and those – architects, city planners, sociologists – who situate themselves above quotidian activity and attempt to determine the form of the city as a space.

Some of the students’ contributions have the phatic quality of the ‘tag’ - images are posted as much as a ‘here I am’ as for any critical function. However, if the phatic is also a prominent feature of web 2.0 culture, enabling a collision between geographical space and virtual space can stimulate reflection on the role of space in the production of society. The blog is messy because web 2.0 culture is messy – to produce a structure of shining neatness and originality would have to bypass the very nature of the medium in which we chose to work.

The student work produced as the culmination of a ten-week investigation of relational forms shows a willingness to experiment with the destination of work, both physical and social, and an expansion of an understanding of form to include the non-visual realm. In this sense, the unit has succeeded in allowing students to engage with discursive and theoretically driven enquiry, in a way that other approaches have struggled with. By commencing with a piece of work made in a relational way – the blog – many discussions can be entered into relating to what is a work? What is the influence of context to reception? Or – more pertinently at this stage – what is the relationship of maker to audience? Students are able to observe the pertinence of these questions due to the exploration of discursive forms in which they are already immersed, and by turning these on their head, perceive exciting new ways of conducting visual – and discursive – enquiry.

Bibliography:

Addison, N, 2003 Issues in Art and Design Teaching, Addison, N and

Burgess, L. (eds), Routledge Falmer

Bal, Mieke, 2002 Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, A Rough Guide, Toronto, University of Toronto Press,

Baudrillard, Jean 1993 Kool Killer, or the Insurrection of Signs, in Symbolic Exchange and Death, London, Sage,

Bourriaud, N, 1998 Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, Les Presse du Reel,

De Certeau, Michel, 1988 The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, University of California Press,

Cohen, 2005 What Does the Photoblog Want? In Media, Culture and Society, Sage Publications.

Shields, Rachel, 2008, The Independent, available online at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/as-art-marketbottoms-out-a-painter-gives-his-work-away-for-nothing-1003954.html

(accessed 27 / 08 / 09, Adam Brown)

Steers, John, 2003, Art and Design in the UK: The Theory Gap, in Issues in Art and Design Teaching, Addison, N and Burgess, L. (eds), Routledge Falmer

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