Wednesday 27 February 2013

Made to Move - an experiment

Last night I took part in an experiment in live-tweeting from the dress rehearsal of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's season of Made to Move. It was an experiment in two ways. First, I haven't been to the ballet since a rather ill-fated night in seventh form; I'm pretty much a dance virgin. And second, this was an experiment on behalf of the RNZB; they have not allowed tweeting before, and the disembodied voice at the start of the performance instructed us all to put away our phones and cameras, making us feel very illicit.

The tweet-up was organised through Arts Wellington, and facilitated by Stephanie Alderson from Postively Wellington Venues. Thomas and Sally-Ann from the RNZB took care of us, telling us about the mechanics of a dress rehearsal, explaining that we were sitting down the bottom* with all the RNZB crew**,introducing us to the programme and telling us who all the people sitting near us were, and giving us stories and tidbits about the pieces, choreographers and dancers.

The aim of the experiment was, basically, to see if a group could be formed to live tweet an event like this, trading access for influence (a perfectly fair trade, in my view - I had an interesting, thoughtful, funny and moving night).

Made to Move consists of three new works by local and visiting choreographers; 'The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud', by Javier De Frutos, 'Of Days' by Andrew Simmons and 'Bier Halle' by Ethan Stiefel. There were, in turn, energetic and evocative, exquisitely sad and beautiful, and comically virtuoso.

'Of Days' was, by far, my favourite piece. I am a complete sucker for romantic minimalism in all its forms - visual, written, musical, and, it transpires, dance. There will be video of the dancers available soon, but until then, here are a selection of the pieces of music Simmonds used, by Olafur Arnalds, Dustin O'Halloran and Ludovico Einaudi. They are exquisite. The costume design, by freelancer and ex-dancer Kate Venables, was also beautiful; stripped back and soft. The stage set, with projected icy-white words and phrases and the use of multiple translucent screens went two ways for me - sometimes I found it wonderfully evocative, and sometimes I forgot to look at the dancers, because I was watching the words morph. (My neighbour said she could equally as happily just listened to the music and watched the words.) And I don't have language for the dancing itself, so I think you should just go see this.

I vastly enjoyed the evening, as did the other live tweeters (there were about 8 of us, all told, all - perhaps unsurprisingly - women). Here are a selection of the tweets that were posted.

(The international hand-sliding-down-face gesture for love pleases me.)

The key question though is - was the experiment a success? There are all sorts of thoughts I have here.

First and most basically, infrastructure. You need powerstrips for chargers (three hours of active tweeting can be very battery draining) and preferably a free wifi network for these kinds of activities.

Second, it's hard to tweet a live, visual performance. This might sound obvious, but you can tweet music and exhibitions in a way you can't dance and theatre, because you don't miss anything when you look down. So you either choose to miss things, or you time it in the intervals (which is just fine, and gives you time to reflect).

Third, not being allowed to take photos makes this much less fun, for us in the audience, and people following along at home. My fingers itched throughout to capture lighting, stage sets, costumes, poses and share them. (I mean, I've dedicated pretty much a whole talk to this topic). I completely agree with the reasoning that the dancers - and not to mention, the rest of the audience - may find this distracting, but I think a happy compromise might be to let people take photos during the applause section, which does go on for rather a while, and is also when you most want to say something.

Fourth and finally. We all sat there in the dark, in the caught-breath concentration, and our screens felt like a violation. I felt guilty every time mine lit up - I felt angry at a particularly large and bright Galaxy's glare. It wasn't just the sense that part of the audience wasn't paying attention (although I know that this is what playing with phones indicates to many people, this is a point I would debate: commenting and sharing is a form of attention, even if it's not the best for retention or for letting yourself sink into a moment). The screens are just really bloody distracting. They look weird and alien, and they detract from the overall experience for everyone. Even as an overly avid tweeter (I passed 20,000 tweets today) I felt it was wrong. I want to go back and see these performances with every bit of my attention fixed on that stage and that music.

Maybe there's a point coming where, when you buy tickets for an event like this, you can select tweeting or not tweeting, like smoking and non-smoking. But following on from attending the Webstock conference and deliberately trying to minimise my online activity over those two days, I'm likely to be firmly in the non-tweeting section.

Having said that, attending the dress rehearsal was a privilege and a pleasure. I find the ballet a little intimidating - I don't know the rules, the audience (I forecast) are not "my people", and it feels like a formal event that I'll be uncomfortable at. The dress rehearsal however was warm, friendly, relaxed, jokey yet intense. It was the best possible introduction, and it's given me real confidence.

*Technical term
**Another technical term

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Clever and cleverer

In case you missed it - a two-part interview with Seb Chan (latterly of the Powerhouse, more recently leading the amazeballs team at the Cooper-Hewitt) on the 21st-century museum in Desktop mag:

Part One

In some respects, museums are at a fork in the road. Some will choose to be community venues with their programming full of timely events and event-driven exhibitions. Others, probably far fewer, will choose to double down on their collections and try to carve out a means of economic survival based on what makes them unique. Both will have re-assert their relevance based on the choice they make, and who they decide to be ‘for’.

Part Two

We’re closed until 2014 whilst the building – Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion – undergoes major renovation and the museum uses the opportunity to re-imagine itself. 

During this period we are purposely being promiscuous with our content. We’ve been opening up our metadata for free public access and reuse, and we’ve been partnering with many organisations to spread our speciality collections and knowledge far and wide. On the collection-side there has been the metadata release through GitHub, and work with Google Art Project and Elsewhere we’ve had digital content partnerships with Behance, Lanyrd and Ushahidi – speciality additions to the now traditional operations Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter . On the exhibitions–side we have shows travelling everywhere from Portland to Paris. And we have events happening across many different venues in New York. 

Much like the web itself, the museum’s activities are becoming more decentralised and dispersed – and I’m hopeful that when our building reopens we will continue this sort of ‘web-like’ approach.

Thursday 21 February 2013


A few weeks ago, Aaron Straup Cope at the Cooper-Hewitt blogged about a new feature they've added to the experimental version of their collection search: Albers boxes.

Albers boxes on the Cooper-Hewitt site
The boxes take the place of standard placeholder icons. As Aaron explains:
The outer ring of an Albers box represents the department that an object belongs to. The middle ring represents the period that an object is part of. The inner ring denotes the type of object. When you mouse over an Albers box we display a legend for each one of the colors.
Of course, you know what I immediately thought. That we need our own version. And we have exactly the right reference already.
Julian Dashper, Untitled, 1996. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
I have no idea if real people will find this helpful, but you know what I love about it? I love knowing that the team had fun, and felt satisfaction making this. The palpable sense of excited experimentation coming out of the Cooper-Hewitt is what makes them the most interesting museum to follow on the internet right now.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Mary Poppins and the weather

A recent article by Dan Hill (sigh) in Domus on BERG's Little Printer captured two connected ideas from designer Jack Schulze that I really love.

Early sketches for Little Printer, which at that time had a Little Shredder attached

The first is Schulze talking about the movie Mary Poppins as a kind of cross between model of how the world works and inspiration for what he makes:
"She is omnipotent. She can conjure up an army of parkour chimney sweep ninjas! But she also has to come and go with the weather, and where there is technology, if you like, it does not always do what it should. It plays up. The umbrella handle is a bit shitty with her. The toys don't always clean themselves up at her command."
The final version of Little Printer

The second is one of those metaphors that will change the whole way I look at my operating environment (by which I mean, work, and where work happens):
BERG have a particular phrase for the conditions of a particular technology, and how you work with its potential and its limitations. "We're interested in this idea of 'the weather', of the inherent conditions of something. You can think of things having a weather, just as places do, and you usually just have to work with it. If you're a coder, you have to work with the weather of the Amazon S3 server. You just get on with it, working within it."
Mary Poppins and the weather. I love it. (Mary Poppins, the books, hold up surprisingly well too. Mary is a fascinating character.)

Sunday 17 February 2013

Has the Internet killed photography? - talk notes

These are my notes from a talk given on the closing weekend of Ben Cauchi's exhibition The Sophist's Mirror at City Gallery Wellington.

Links to articles and talks that I mentioned are provided at the end of this post. You might also like to check out these recent, fortuitously linked pieces that Suse Cairns and Seb Chan:

Suse Cairns: When seeing becomes social
Seb Chan: Constant short term nostalgia

With thanks to the people who gave me ideas, phrases and article suggestions over the past few months while I've been mulling this over, and the people who endured impromptu practice sessions over the past few days, especially at the Webstock after-party. And of course to Ben Cauchi and Aaron Lister for inviting me to talk in the first place, and giving me a chance to explore these ideas.

* * *

I’m taking my opening statement from Sarah Bakewell’s recent book on the 16th century inventor of the modern essay, the French writer Michel de Montaigne.

"The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of self."

What I want to look at this afternoon is the way that - in this age of near ubiquitous connectivity, of computer-camera combinations that we carry around in our pockets, of liking and retweeting and pinning - we document and publish our lives online, specifically through photographs, and then ask if there are any lines we can draw between this digital practice and the determinedly analogue work of Ben Cauchi.

But maybe we should start with why I’m here.

I am not an expert in photography. I am, at best, an amateur and an autodidact; my knowledge is erratic, narrowly-focused, based on memory and feeling rather than theory. Most of this knowledge has been built up through my time working with the National Library of New Zealand’s photographic collections.

This began in 2002, when I was at university and got a gig working as Michael Stevenson’s researcher for his This is the Trekka project for the Venice Biennale.

Michael lives in Berlin, and he would email me lists of things he wanted - any material on New Zealand’s preparations for nuclear fallout in the event of Russia and America bombing each other, for example, or photographs of butter production from the 1950s, or a portrait of Bill Sutch, or images of the Dave Brubeck Quartet from their 1960 visit to New Zealand.

At this time, I mainly used the Library’s amazing photo file-drawers on the ground floor of the old building. These treasure troves of access-copies were arranged by subject: Roseneath, fashion, sheep farming; there were supplementary flip-folders where the picture librarians had collated photocopies on various prosaic and fanciful topics; my favourite, unrelated to my research contract, was on corrugated iron.

Between doing this research gig and 2006, when I went to work at the Library, first in the comms team but quickly shimmying my way over into the web team, the first tentative millennial projects to get the Library’s pictorial collections online picked up speed. The first real breakthrough though was the Manuscripts + Pictorial site; meant to host the digitised papers of Sir Donald McLean, my friend who was leading the project also rather subversively dumped in the entirety of the digitised pictorial collections as well. Suddenly, we had a beautiful and approachable alternative to the janky old Timeframes site (including the very basic ability to provide permalinks), and a small group of us set about setting the Library’s photographic collections free.

We joined the Commons on Flickr, a special initiative by the photo-sharing behemoth to get collecting institutions to share their photography collections with the world’s most passionate photography community, under ‘No known copyright’ licences.

We argued fiercely to enable people to add their knowledge and information to collection items. We started, in 2009, what I think must be one of the longest running Twitter projects from any cultural institution in the world, tbreaktweets, where twice a day a tidbit from the collections - almost always a photograph - is sent out to several thousand followers.

We created more interfaces and better search tools and more toys; first Matapihi, then Digital New Zealand, then the overhauled National Library site itself. We added set-making to Digital New Zealand so that people could make collections of their favourite items from collecting institutions all over the world.

During this time, I must have spent the equivalent of weeks, if not months, of aggregated time sifting through the pictorial collections, moving from subject to subject, photographer to photographer, chasing similarities, following hunches, filling my visual memory. Now, you can throw me almost any line, improv style, and I will come up with an image to bounce back at you. It is a pointless talent, but it is mine, and it makes me happy.

The several hundred thousand images I am familiar with are, of course, just a drop in the photographic ocean.

It is estimated that 85 billion physical photos were taken in the year 2000. That’s 2,500 photos per second.

Jonathan Goodman
In September 2011, someone could make this diagram. That year, it was estimated that 70 billion photos would be uploaded to Facebook. At that time, Facebook’s photo collection was, at 140 billion photos, 10,000 times larger than that of the Library of Congress.

Erik Kessels, 'Photography in Abundance', 2011
Here’s another way of looking at it. This is a 2011 exhibition by Dutch artist Erik Kessels. For this work, called “Photography In Abundance”, he downloaded and printed every photo added to Flickr in a 24-hour period and strew them around a gallery in Amsterdam. He wanted to visualise the feeling of “drowning in representations of other people's experiences”.

But what underlies this seemingly primal need to capture and share our likenesses and our impressions of the world?

* * *

Imagine a man standing in front of a film crew in a brand-new, empty factory. He turns to the camera.

"We are still a long way," he says, "from the camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long ... a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses."

This camera will be "something that was always with you," he says; and it would be frictionless. Point, shoot, see. It would be as simple and as natural as - and here he reaches into his coat - as taking a wallet out of your pocket, holding it up, and pressing a button.

That man was Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and the inventor of the instant camera, making a promo film in 1970. He was laying out an idea he’d been working on for quarter of a century.

In the late 1940s, cameras still only went with you on special occasions. You took your photos and sent your film to a processing plant, and received your prints in a week. In November 1948, the Land Camera was released by Polaroid. It developed its own film inside the camera in about a minute, the back of the camera popping open and letting you peel the negative away and expose the print. The first batch of cameras, expected to meet demand for weeks, sold out in hours. By the 1970s, amateur photographers were shooting over a billion photos a year.

Polaroid didn’t just invent a new technology. They introduced us to a new style of casual documentary photography. In 1974 Land wrote

"A new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being...when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs. It turns out that buried within us...there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humour.... We have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humoured delight in each other."

I find these statements immensely touching. Land’s faith in the goodness of people, rather than his sense that our selfish pleasure in ourselves is an endlessly exploitable commodity.

We live, of course, in the future Land described. We carry computers in our pockets that let us take photos wherever and whenever: we are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs, effortlessly.

And we do not share the photos in the privacy of our own homes, or through photo albums passed hand to hand. Instead, we float them out onto the internet: embedded on our blogs, appended to our tweets, published to our Facebook galleries, uploaded to our Instagram or CameraPlus accounts.

Every day, we are consciously crafting and embellishing our self image, our personas, through the images we make and share. And this is what I find fascinating about the age of digital photography and the internet. We’ve come to see every moment of our lives as something we can capture, record, pin down, pass on. The perfect Instagrammed photo of your lunch, the perfectly crafted tweet about your commute to work, your perfect Facebook update on your two year-old’s birthday cake.

James Bridle gave a talk in 2011 called ‘Waving at the machines’. It was about a visual meme or movement known as The New Aesthetic - the emergence of the physical world of a digital aesthetic. Bitty, blocky, pixelated, low-res - the way these objects, buildings, cars look could not have emerged had our eyes not become accustomed to looking at the world through machines. In his talk, Bridle also discussed how digital photography has changed our perception of events, and of time itself. Once, there was distance between the image-making process and the image-viewing process. No longer. As he said:

"This is instant now. There’s this kind of instant review. You can take a photo and see back instantly. It instantly makes that moment that just passed a thing that happened, a thing in the past, a memory. If our bodies are machines for negotiating space, our minds are machines for navigating time, and digital photography and technology in general is aimed squarely at our idea of time and our place in it. And there’s no stronger view of that than photos and the ways in which they’re presented back to us and change our perceptions of ourselves in time."

In his talk, Bridle touched on a topic of much discussion and derision online: the instant filter effects available through various phone apps and social media sites, but exemplified by Instagram.

Instagram is a social photography app. It lets you take photos, apply filters to them, then share them in various ways. Distinctively, it confines photos to a square format, reminiscent of Polaroids, rather than the rectangular format native to digital cameras. The dozen or so filters available through Instagram tend to add a nostalgic haze, a beaten-in vintage effect, to these digital snapshots. You can add pinkish or goldish overtones, turn your photo into sepia, make the colours super-saturated and add a scratchy border, all with a few dabs of your finger. Suddenly, a deserted bus stop is the saddest place in the world, a sunset is the harbinger of the apocalypse, your bare feet with their painted toenails standing on the lawn look better than bare feet have ever looked.

By April 2012 - the time Facebook entered negotiations to purchase Instagram - 30 million accounts had been created on the service. “Slap a filter on it” has become a cry of derision. With remarkable concision, one author I read while preparing this talk said “Instagram looks like shit and people take photos of shitty stuff with it”.

The ease of the filter - the way that with a grasp of the basic fundamentals of composition and the pressing of a few buttons you can produce works that rival, in visual effect, trained photographers - seems to induce a special form of irateness. One of my favourite essays on this topic is by the author Teju Cole. Writing about the cheapness of this post-processing, the too-easy addition of unctuous colour and beautiful light, he says; "The result is briefly beguiling to the senses but ultimately annoying to the soul, like fake breasts or MSG-rich food." He continues:

"All bad photos are alike, but each good photograph is good in its own way. The bad photos have found their apotheosis on social media, where everybody is a photographer and where we have to suffer through each other’s “photography” the way our forebears endured terrible recitations of poetry after dinner. Behind this dispiriting stream of empty images is what Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia. According to Nabokov, poshlost “is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” He knows us too well."

Digital photography, as Bridle pointed out, eliminated any elapse of time between image taking and image viewing. It is truly instant. And this instantaneousness has thrust us into an era not only of instant broadcasting (Look at me NOW) but also instant archiving.

Exactly as we fix our attention on the present moment, we are recording it and assigning it to the past. Social media - and the social sharing of photographs, especially these tricked-out insta-retro images - now makes us see the present as a potential documented past. We move through the world like butterfly catchers of experiences and events, plucking them from the air and pinning them down, admiring them in flight only insofar as we’re trying to get the light right.

Some commentators argue that the rise of the faux-vintage photo points to an attempt to harness the power of the past - the emotional punch of nostalgia - to make our photos, and by extension, the moments of our lives they record - more important, more substantial, more real.

You could get all Fredric Jameson and talk about ‘nostalgia for the present’ - in our inability or refusal to grasp the realities of contemporary life, we cast backwards in order to find a time, a society, an aesthetic that provides more comfort. Jameson - an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist - described the “nostalgia mode” in 1967 as “a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism itself—or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history”.

Actually, if we’re going to get philosophical, let’s bring in Walter Benjamin. This use of state-of-the-art technology to mimic old world technology makes lie of - or perhaps makes truth of - what Benjamin wrote in his highly influential 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership."

These filters apply instant age, instant gravitas to your photos. This quality of “timeyness” isn’t just related to their 1970s Polaroid aesthetic - as pointed out by many writers, most Instagram users wouldn’t have any existing emotional connection to those actual physical objects. Something about them, as Teju Cole observed, just hits us hard in our nostalgia-prone solar plexus.

Mad Men actually says all this much better than I can.

The pleasantly painful pull of this gentle mourning is culturally widespread. Our English use of the word nostalgia has evolved from its use 300 years ago to describe a physical condition of extreme, even lethal, homesickness to a psychological descriptor of longing, not only for place, but for a time past that can only be returned to in memory.

The Japanese term Mono no aware, literally "the pathos of things" but also translatable as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity to ephemera," was coined at about the same time. The phrase describes the awareness of the transience of things, and a sort of wistfulness about their passing - an emotion that endless digital images could both seek to forestall but also to bring forth to be pensively enjoyed. 

There’s a German word too, of course, that’s apt here. Sehnsucht translates, kind of, as ‘addictive yearning’. It is a profound sense that there is a way things should be, an awareness that things as they stand are incomplete or missing, and a kind of longing for the desired state. The point of the emotion is not thing itself, but the feeling of the longing. Psychologists have mapped Sehnsucht's six core characteristics: (1) utopian conceptions of ideal development (2) sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life (3) conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future (4) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions (5) reflection and evaluation of one's life; and (6) symbolic richness.

There’s a similarly hard to translate word in Portuguese - saudade. Once described as ‘the love that remains after someone is gone’, it describes a longing for an absent person or thing, combined with the knowledge that the object of longing will never return. It encompasses the recollections of the happy emotions associated with the missing object, and the sense that something that should be present in the given moment is gone. Saudade can be projected forward; one can have saudade of a person they are with at the moment, feeling a sense of loss towards the future.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Here’s the thoughts of one of the smartest men I’ve ever met in real life. Aaron Straup Cope is now at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, but he used to be an engineer at Flickr. He says that if they did anything wrong at Flickr - a site renowned for its strength of community - it was let people think their photos weren’t "good enough" to upload.

"... all it took to get all those people excited about the art and the craft of photography again – in ways of seeing the world as something more than a mirror – were those stupid filters.

"Those stupid filters are really important because they re-opened a space in which people could manoeuvre. These are new things not least because I'm guessing that a sizable chunk of Instagram's user base was born after the 1970s and so there is no nostalgia to be asserted. The past is just a medium.

"Sometimes the past is not a rejection of the present but a good and useful screen through which to look for patterns, to look for things we'd never have been able to see in the past."

I think these photos are important. I think they are important not for what they depict, necessarily, but what they say about the culture that took them. If we don’t capture the mundane and inane alongside the important, we lose the texture, the grain of people’s everyday lives.

I have had some vigorous conversations with colleagues in the web and cultural world about collecting and preserving and re-presenting the world’s digital photos. A couple of years ago, the Library of Congress announced that they were going to take in Twitter’s archive. They have no idea, as far as I’m aware, of how to make such a data collection comprehensible - how these billions of loosely connected thought-blips could be arranged and sorted and searched and presented. But when it comes to collecting the digital world, I think it’s better to collect and then figure it out than to fear the complexity and risk losing out.

I also think our institutions generally do a poor job of collecting the present moment. It is hard to tell what will be important in 50 years’ time, and grabbing the present requires energy and fleetness of foot. It is easier to hunt the slow-moving past than the blink-of-an-eye present.

When I have these conversations with colleagues, they often ask 'Why do we need five thousand photos of people's flat whites?'. And my response it that it's not the individual photos that are important; it's the fact that there are thousands of them that is important. This might be the difference between historic and historical.

So here’s my wish. I want to be able to tweet my photos to the National Library, and have them automatically passed through to the digital collections. We can have a little code phrase, if you like - we can sign up in advance and agree to a nice open Creative Commons license too. And who cares if what I’ve shot is my coffee or a carcrash, a sunset or a street fight. If I bother to send it to you, you can assume I’ve decided it says something of some importance. Just make it easy for me to help you build a picture of tomorrow’s past.

* * *

Enough philosophising. Let’s look at some stuff and things, online and in the real world, and sometimes confusingly in-between. This in-between space (described by Robin Sloan as the 'flip-flop') is a space I find particularly rich and interesting.

Descriptive camera

Matt Richardson’s ‘Descriptive Camera’ is a digital camera that instead of outputting a photograph, gives you a textual description of whatever you pointed the camera at.

Richardson came up with the idea after being underwhelmed by the metadata that digital cameras generate - date, time, camera model, sometimes geospatial coordinates. He wanted to see a world where the camera told you what the content of the photo was. This technology isn’t available or even feasible right now, so Richardson came up with an inspired hack.

When you take a photo with the Descriptive Camera, it is sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk - an online piece-work site, where people can send tiny tasks, like describing a photo, to a distributed workforce. So a Mechanical Turk looks at the photo, writes the text, which is sent back to the camera, where it is then printed on thermal paper like an EFTPOS receipt - a polaroid for words.

Descriptive camera
One side of Descriptive Camera I find interesting and a little worrying is the sense of exploitation. The language turns workers into computational units: work is broken down into HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) and the buyer is given access to a cheap, global, 24 hour workforce who they never have to interact with. This is why I feel somewhat guitly that one of my first thoughts when I read about this project was I wonder if libraries and archives could use this to cheaply describe photographs that they are mass digitising so they can get them up online faster?

Polaroid Cacher

With Polaroid Cacher, the whole physical/digital flip-flop gets turned inside out. It’s a collaboration between by Adria Navarro and DI Shin, two grad students in interactive design at NYU. The conceit is the belief that our everyday online activity is as important as our physical world activities, and should be preserved in the same way. Preserved, and also made memorable - pulled out of the digital graveyard of outdated services and forgotten conversation.

Tapping into the powerful association of instant photography with people, memory and nostalgia, Navarro and Shin decided to design the camera as a fictional Polaroid product. It’s a two-part object. The first interface is a browser plug-in that lets you take “photos” of webpages - effectively, a screenshot tool that acts like a camera viewfinder. The image is sent wirelessly to the repurposed camera , which “develops” and prints it out, framed like a traditional instant photo.

Polaroid Cacher
I find this kind of entrancing. Gimmicky, but entrancing. As always, I come back to Twitter. Twitter has - until it started letting you download your archive - been notoriously ephemeral. There are probably hundreds of tweets over the years that I would have snapshotted and sent to my Polaroid printer, should I have had one.


Last year I came up with this idea for an online service. You’d create your slidedeck in Keynote or Powerpoint, and then you’d upload it to this website. Overnight, your digital slides would be turned into physical slide transparencies, and posted to you in a carousel. And then, hipsterifically, you would rock up to your talk, demand your physical projector, and stand up the front, lulling the audience with that nostalgic ker-chunk kerchunk and soporific whirr. Projecteo is kind of like that.

It’s a project from a company called Mint Design that went through Kickstarter. It takes your Instagram photos, turns them into a teeny tiny slide wheel, and then sends them to you, to be then projected through a titchy custom-made projector.

My Daguerreotype Boyfriend

This is the project I wish I had thought of. My Daguerreotype Boyfriend is really simple. It’s crowdsourced historical photos of hot men - with a little information, if it’s available. New Zealanders have featured at least twice - once the mugshot of Daniel Toohill, and once with - rather gorgeously - Alexander Turnbull himself, originator of the National Library’s historical collections.

Alexander Turnbull
Then there is the trend of then and now photography. This is often another exercise in nostalgia. We see it more concretely in the use of documentary photos and Google Earth images to show, for example, pre and post-quake Christchurch, or pre and post-Hurricane Sandy New York, or London before and after the 2011 riots. But there are playful, touching and funny personal and crowd-sourced projects too.

Young Me, Now Me

Young Me, Now Me is an exercise in memory and nostalgia by artist and performer Ze Frank. Here, people recreate photos from earlier in their life and send them in. There are lots of single portraits - people in their 20s, 40s, 60s recreating photos from their teens, childhood, infancy. And touchingly, there are portraits of family groups - brothers, cousins, fathers and sons.

Young Me, Now Me
People put in a lot of effort. They employ props, sets and makeup, and gather people together to revisit locations and restage images. People also send in little descriptions to sit alongside the paired images, which are touching, funny, and sometimes simply bland.

Dear Photograph

Like Young Me Now Me, Dear Photograph is an exercise in memory, nostalgia and recreating. People take an analogue photograph back to the place it was taken, then hold it up against the original setting so that past and present blend into a single image. As with Young Me Now Me, the images are all contributed by people from all over the world. 

Dear Photograph
Dear Photograph was created by then 21-year-old Canadian “online media expert” Taylor Jones futzing around with family photos online. The site now has hundreds of entries, 20,000 visits a day, and a book project.


Wellingtonian Virginia Gow’s Tuhonohono project is another take on the historical/contemporary mash-up. Each day as she goes about her life she takes photos with her phone - at the end of every day, she matches a selected photograph with an image dug up from the National Library’s historical collections. Some are one for one matches, others are poetic interpretations.

Every night on Twitter, an avid little fan group waits for the day’s update and an glimpse into how she sees the world.


Switcheroo doesn’t quite fit in, but I’m banging it up here because it’s kind of delightful. Switcheroo is a project by artist Hanna Pesut. Couples - it’s almost entirely couples - stand next to each other and take a photo. They then swop outfits, and take another photo. Then they send it in to Pesut.

There are hundreds of these photos - like Young Me, Now Me they are funny, touching, bland. But in all cases, people have been moved by what they’ve seen other people doing, and decided to take part themselves.

* * * 

So, has the internet killed photography? And what does it mean, to look at Ben Cauchi’s determinedly analogue photographs in light of the digital photography explosion? I never meant that title seriously, and the longer I’ve thought about this, the more I wonder whether the tsunami-like nature of digital and social photography has any relevance to Ben’s work.

What I think it does do is accentuate one of the major critical risks to Ben’s work, which is to fetishise the process.

Ben himself is very aware that this aspect of his work - a highly seductive physical process that is skilful, laborious, alchemical - is both the hook that brings people in and a potential sinkhole. An extended version of an interview Guy Somerset did with him for the Listener had 80 questions: over a quarter were about his process, equipment, cameras, chemicals. In the interview they do discuss this trap - where the process becomes the end, the point of discussion and focus and interpretation, rather than a means to an end. Here’s a good example of what I mean by that (at this point I played the Breaking Bad-esque opening minute of this clip, but do watch the whole thing).

The actual subjects Ian Rutler chooses - waterfalls, hot mess girls with mussed hair and thin singlets - are extremely Instagrammy. This kind of similarity is leading some photographers to take a quite defensive position; to themselves fetishise process and training as a way of separating themselves out.

In one of the articles I read, a professionally trained photographer went with a nay-saying journalist to an Instagrammer meet-up in London, centred on an exhibition of printed Instagram images. And the photographer said this:

"Looking at all the images together like this, you notice a huge repetition. And it's not as if the repeated images are even particularly interesting, they're things you see every day – a London phone box, or a burger – only everything's in black and white, bar the red of the phone box or the logo on the plane wing, or whatever. What you do start to see is examples of the basic principles of photography.

"It's as if acquiring the app is like taking the first couple of months of my GCSE photography course. Users start learning to use the Rule of Thirds and depth of field and that kind of thing, which is why everything looks like a college project. For example, we were told to take pictures of tube walkways in college because they're full of straight lines, which are pleasing to the eye, and you see thousands of photos of tube escalators and platforms on Instagram all the time.

"What I don't think most users understand is that, to create a good image of something millions of people see every day, you have to go the extra mile and approach it from a different angle, rather than just standing in front of it, buying a new £2.99 filter and snapping away."

First off, it was a lightbulb moment for me to think that Instagram has encouraged millions of people to master the basic vernacular of photography; to self-educate themselves in why certain set-ups are harmonious or jarring or alluring, to explore how the affect of an image can be manipulated through colour and tone, to teach themselves how to light a cup of coffee or pose a person.

But secondly, I disagreed with his conclusion. I would argue that these photographers - amateur, vernacular, social, call them what you will - are engaging with the world in a more observant and intense manner than they used to. Just like teenagers today write more than ever before, our contemporary camera-brain is learning to see the world differently, and our visual databases are expanding.

A friend observed to me, when I was talking to him about this all, that it feels to him that the older photography gets, the younger it feels. We have the cameras Edwin Land talked about, the cameras we use as often as we uses pencils - arguably far more often - but also we have the curious, affectionate, humorous network he spoke of.

Photography has entered a new childhood, and I think things are only going to get more interesting as it keeps growing down.


It’s Polaroid’s World - We Just Live in It
Christopher Bonanos
The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2012

I still don't get Instagram
Clive Martin
Vice, January 2013

Dappled Things: Pinkhassov on Instagram
Teju Cole
The New Inquiry, 23 September 2012

Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble with ‘Curation’
Carina Chocano
New York Times, 20 July 2012

Being There
Babbage Science and Technology blog
The Economist, 19 May 2011

How many photos have ever been taken?*
Jonathan Good
1000 memories, 15 September 2011

Waving at the Machines
James Bridle’s keynote at Webdirections South 2011

Stories from the New Aesthetic
Aaron Straup Cope, notes from a panel discussion at the New Museum, New York, October 2012

The Faux-Vintage Photo
Nathan Jurgenson
The Society Pages, 14 May 2011

Ben Cauchi interview - The long version
Guy Somerset
NZ Listener, 2 November 2012

Saturday 16 February 2013

Has the internet killed photography?

Of course not. Don't be so bloody silly.

Here are the cited sources for today's talk on and around Ben Cauchi's show at City Gallery. Depending on how the talk went, I may post the notes here later too.


It’s Polaroid’s World - We Just Live in It
Christopher Bonanos
The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2012

I still don't get Instagram
Clive Martin
Vice, January 2013

Dappled Things: Pinkhassov on Instagram
Teju Cole
The New Inquiry, 23 September 2012

Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble with ‘Curation’
Carina Chocano
New York Times, 20 July 2012

Being There
Babbage Science and Technology blog
The Economist, 19 May 2011

How many photos have ever been taken?*
Jonathan Good
1000 memories, 15 September 2011

Waving at the Machines
James Bridle’s keynote at Webdirections South 2011

Stories from the New Aesthetic
Aaron Straup Cope, notes from a panel discussion at the New Museum, New York, October 2012

The Faux-Vintage Photo
Nathan Jurgenson
The Society Pages, 14 May 2011

Ben Cauchi interview - The long version
Guy Somerset
NZ Listener, 2 November 2012

Projects mentioned

Dear Photograph*

Young Me Now Me*

Descriptive Camera*

My Daguerreotype Boyfriend*



The Polaroid Cacher*



Mad Men - The Carousel 

Ian Ruhter: Silver and Light

Image credits

Websites/projects that I used screenshots from are marked with an *

Man and bird. Ref: 114/138/10-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Dave Brubeck Quartet arriving at Wellington Airport. Ref: EP/1960/1132-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

United Nude’s Lo-Res shoe

Thursday 14 February 2013

The DNA of movement

Dance is becoming a little sub-theme here (which makes me think it's really time to see some in the flesh).

My latest: this article about Australian dancer Stuart Shugg in the New York Times. I'm not all that interested in Mr Shugg himself (sorry Stuart) but I'm fascinated by some of the phrases he uses:

On older women dancers: "All those women have incredible history in their bodies. They don’t have the highest legs. But even if they’re not moving like 20-year-olds, they are still incredibly articulate."

On effectively having an unpaid internship with the Trisha Brown Company: "It was worth it just to get that information in my body".

This idea of information and history encoded in the body is one that I find intriguing.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

KiwiFoo reading lists

For the past three years at KiwiFoo, Nat Torkington and I have run a 'What are you reading' session: a very simple session in which whoever turns up in the room shares recommendations for books that intrigued them, informed them, inspired them, angered or confused them.

I've turned the recommendations we've gathered each year into a Goodreads list:

2013 KiwiFoo reading recommendations

2012 KiwiFoo reading recommendations

2011 KiwiFoo reading recommendations

If you have extra suggestions:
  • leave a comment here
  • ping me on @auchmill
  • add directly to the list on Goodreads if you're a member
P.S. If you've recommended a book and it doesn't appear on the list, it's not because I'm judging you. It's because either there was a disconnect between your memory of the book's name and my transcription, or the title you noted doesn't appear on Goodreads.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Yeah, I miss 'em too

A little clutch of articles on your twenties, the most influential (?) decade of your life:

The 'Girls' Gut Check: Racial Tension, Artistic Differences, and YouTube (The Atlantic)
I'm with Ashley on this one. Without YouTube, I wouldn't be a functional adult. (Sorry, mom and dad.) I can't even fold shirts without it. Still, I think it's silly to say that YouTube is "replacing" anything—it's more akin to an instructional booster than an out-and-out competitor.
The Mysteriously Memorable 20s (Slate)
A little-known but robust line of research shows that there really is something deeply, weirdly meaningful about this period. It plays an outsize role in how we structure our expectations, stories, and memories. The basic finding is this: We remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives. This phenomenon is called the reminiscence bump.
You’ll Never Forget Your Twenties, Because That’s When You Become Who You Are (Jezebel)
But I have to ask — these are children who've seen television and magazines, which means they've been exposed to how our culture fetishizes the twenties. It's not like they dreamed up this stuff in a vacuum. Or, as all former children know, the twenties are the decade of first exposure to autonomy, so it makes perfect sense that children would regard with greater importance the first period of their lives in which they can eat as many cookies as they want and stay up all night, no questions asked.

Monday 11 February 2013

Opening lines

This weekend, I'll be talking at City Gallery Wellington on (but mostly around) Ben Cauchi's current show.

Thank goodness I wrote the abstract for the talk a while ago, because a lot has happened in the intervening months. Ever since meeting with Aaron and Ben to discuss the possibility of the talk while they were installing the show, I've been gathering links and quotes and examples in a Google doc, which has grown to an unwieldy eight pages. It's been a geeky pleasure to work through it and things I've written here on the blog to stitch together a talk that will - hopefully - introduce everyone in the audience to at least one new thing.

But the key question is always 'Where to start?'. And I think I found my opening thought on the plane to Auckland for Laneways, on the first page of Sarah Bakewell's book on the first modern essayist, Michael de Montaigne:
The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of self.
It would be lovely to see some of you on Saturday. I'll be the slightly nervous looking person up the front. Come say hello.

Thursday 7 February 2013

The new old

A Slate Culture Gabfest segment on the death of the American mall (responding to this article in The Atlantic Cities) got me thinking - might abandoned mega-malls be the next warehouses and power plants for museum and gallery building projects?

Sure, they're not anywhere near as architecturally attractive. But boy, do they have a lot of parking space. After tweeting this little thought, I got sent this article about an American tech company that took over an abandoned mall for its 3000+ workforce, and the website for the Renew Newcastle projects (revitalisation of urban spaces through creative projects and businesses - not quite what I'm thinking about here.)

Also, someone made this lovely promise. Just tell me where to vote.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Adult education

Since starting at The Dowse, I've spent as much time as I can hanging out with our educators. This is partly because I want to understand what they do and how they do it, and partly because I just find it really enjoyable. The school holiday programmes I went to in January, for example, made my week.

One of the things that this has got me thinking about is how different the experiences we make for adults and kids are. When a school group visits, they are greeted and introduced to the museum. They are taken around a show, or gathered in front of Nuke Tewhatewha, or seated in a circle to touch items from our handling collection. Jen and Jolie draw connections between the objects in the museum and objects or experiences in the kids's worlds and lives. They are asked questions, and ask them themselves. There's reading and role-playing and scavenger hunts and binoculars and all manner of things - and that's before they even get to the education workshop and start making things themselves. That's where making turns into a form of learning; perhaps, from the teachers I know, it's even the best form of learning.

Jen and Jolie open the kids' eyes and ears and minds, and even just the physical way they interact with the kids is different: they hunker down to their height, use their bodies to tell stories, smile, laugh. When one of the older girls, who was clearly a regular visitor, left our Camp Rock school holiday programme the other week, she hugged and kissed Jen and Jolie goodbye - and then did the same to me. She was entirely in her element.

When I go to a event at any gallery - including my own - it's rarely like this. I'm an expert gallery visitor, but I still occasionally feel nervous and a little off-kilter. Events for adults tend to feature a lot of being talked-at, with a little uncomfortable question time at the end of the hour. (I'm preparing one of these myself at the moment. Maybe I should just chuck in the talk and see if we can run an instawalk instead.) From my experiences at Foo Camp, we grown-ups actually love being given the chance to learn and then respond, moving between the two modes, exploring as a group.

Taking part in the school holiday programmes also reminded me how impoverished my imagination has become. I empathise deeply with the kids who sit in front of their sheet of paper or ball of clay, utterly stymied as to where to start or what to make. I feel skill-less and almost intimidated by the four-year-olds who just merrily throw themselves into it. But once I get over my self-consciousness, I start to feel very happy. There is a very simple an strong level of enjoyment in the physical act of creating something, that goes alongside the mental activity.

All of this has made me think - what would adult activities that are more like kids activities be like? Would people attend them? Would a group of made up of people who mostly don't know each other be able to have the same kind of experience as a classroom or Foo Camp group? I've been looking with interest and a little professional envy at what Auckland Art Gallery are doing with their Drop-in Drawing sessions (and the numbers they get along).

We have a little glimmer of an idea brewing for 2014 that I can see being a beautiful opportunity to take these musings and really unleash them. In the meantime, I'm going to keep ticketing away ideas and, when we've recruited our new curator/public programmes coordinator, explore these notions with them.

Finally, the motivation for getting this post down came via two articles on the MOMA blog: Making art at MOMA and At Play, Seriously, in the Museum. In them Wendy Woon looks at historical education activities at MOMA, and especially the period under Victor D'Amico, hired by director and diagram-drawer Alfred Barr in 1937 to lead the 'Educational Project':
Over the next thirty-two years, fired by a pedagogical position that put art making and creativity at the center of appreciating modern art, D’Amico created a series of programs and resources, including a Young People’s Gallery; a Veteran’s Art Center; the innovative Art Barge, where summer classes were held; and The People’s Art Center (later the Institute of Modern Art), which brought five hundred children and three hundred adults to the Museum every week for art classes.
MOMA run their Art Labs as a way of continuing some of the ethos Barr and D'Amico put in place. I'm keen to learn more myself. If you have attended or run events like this yourself, I'd love to hear from you.