Monday, February 21, 2005

ironing out the stop-start life

The book I was reading (House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski) to get myself psyched up for househunting turned out to have a photographer as a protagonist/object of study. One of the faux-critiques in the book suggested his motivation for becoming a photographer may have its roots in "a discontinuous lifestyle marked by constant threats of abandonment and the lack of emotional stability."

shadow homeWhich struck me as unconvincing as motivation for taking photos but seemed about right for a blog -- a way of organising and re-editing raw experience (confused, self-contradictory, discontinuous) into a narrative of self which can both protect against losing experience (through forgetting) and sort experience into something more consistent through chosing which experiences to reinforce through re-writing.

So, the journal, the blog becomes a stress response, something used to counteract panic, a non-aggressive action used to smooth out the stop-start stutter of a life characterised by long periods of waiting and reflection alternated with times of intense activity and periods of blank time (time which does not contain chosen experiences but ones which have been visited on an individual by the demands of family, job etc.)

haunted wastelandBut the action of smoothing, editing, selecting is inevitably introducing errors; and whether you embrace your partiality* or try to fight back against it, there's still that anxiety that all this selecting, rewriting and re-editing is leading to a progressive narrowing of narrative opportunitities.

Perhaps that's why so many (livejournallers, especially) participate in quizzes, memes, or informal interviews, in which the content of a post is determined by random or external rules; an attempt to break out of your own selection habits.

Returning to the concept of "blank time" -- rewriting may attempt to reclaim parts of the stolen time as personal experience; the person blogging about an annoying roommate, new insights gained at a training course, or an awkward family funeral may be taking actions and events felt in some way to be owned by someone else, and through the act of writing, creating a version of the experience liberated from other peoples' expectations and ownership and placed instead within a completely personal (literally, selfish) context.

domestic sceneAnd right there, I do see the photograph -- in fact, some of the earliest photographs I took, odd blurred moments discreetly stolen from awkward experiences (a family outing to a beach, illicit parties at school) and made my own through the Truprint ritual of postage and money. A narrow slice of experience, lifted too fast for anyone else to notice or mind.

Which takes me back to the photographer in House of Leaves, who filled his life with pictures because the narcissism of others made him "identify with absence". But there's where it falls down for this character (a dynamic, successful documentary photographer).

Because surely, drawing motivation (inspiration) from absence would drive you to seek out vacant subjects. Or perhaps something even less active than that.

* "(life is too short for) willful triviality" - Dickon Edwards

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

the register interviews the link spammer

Friends using Movable Type alerted me to The Register's interview with a link spammer, along with the usual curses and threats of violence. Apart from the (now very occasional) erasing of a stray comment spam in the livejournal communities I moderate, this problem seems to have been solved by the developers at the sites I use, so perhaps I lack the deep-seated sense of grievance to respond appropriately, but I came out of the article not so much annoyed at the link spammer (who, let's face it, is no more evil than arms dealers or traffickers and all the other people who will tell you that they're just meeting a business need and it's nothing personal) but actually (as often happens) quite annoyed with The Register.

Something about the tone of the article bothered me, made me feel snarling. But what? Consider this paragraph:
So Sam, like other link spammers, uses the thousands of 'open proxies' on the net. These are machines which, by accident (read: clueless sysadmins) or design (read: clueless managers) are set up so that anyone, anywhere, can access another website through them. Usually intended for internal use, so a company only needs one machine facing the net, they're actually hard to lock down completely.
So while admitting that it's actually "quite hard" to keep your machines secure, The Register nevertheless calls the people maintaining machines that are vulnerable "clueless", and while they don't come out and say "well, they're asking for it", the implication is there ... and as the story continues, the interviewer seems almost beside himself with excitement over this turd who is devoting his life to further destroying the internet's already dicey signal to noise ratio, all in the name of directing more people into the his gaping pornogamblingpillhole.

It seems weird that someone doing something so dull and destructive should end up invested with hacker glamour; but perhaps it isn't actually about what he's doing. While quick to insist he's not breaking the law, a quick glance returns the moral equivalent of using other peoples' back-gardens, car-parks and school-yards for reselling prostitutes, slots and pills. Even though the laws aren't written yet it's obvious he's breaking them. And he's unrepentant.

So maybe it's just the natural grudging respect we feel for the unrepentant sinner; the person who actually does what we occasionally think about. Like spraying anonymous pornographic links over someone's comment boxes, cramming swear-words into an online form or emailing cocks to someone else's circulation list. There's a sort of goggle-eyed admiration at work here; not only is he doing it, but he's making it pay, giving it the undeniable legitimacy of commercial success.

So there you have it; the geeks coyly eyeing up the naughty boys with sneaking admiration, while all the time, saying "well I could, if I wanted to ..."

Although of course, they never would at The Register. They're above all that.

mapping personal experience

Stagger on by and forward; glance back and see how your blog (journal, diary, passage through life) leaves a shape behind you, an empty you-shaped space surrounded by a thin patina of effect-on-the-world, like a slug trail, or (drawing on a memory which is probably very specific to me) the tube of a caddis fly larva*.

As well as located in history, experiences also have a geographical location. Paul Chadwick visited it in an experimental edition of his comic Concrete, where he attempted to draw an image first of the hero's home, then america, and eventually the world, criscrossed by the stone image of his passage through time. Which is all very well when you're a unique being like Concrete, but we're speaking from out of a crowd; every day, I wade to work through other people's stories, moments of despair and happiness, the echoes of fights and kisses, accidents and encounters.

Some of them leave marks; blood in the gutter, scribbles on a busstop, fag-but scatter of someone waiting, sequin sparkles from a party home stagger. More often than not, it's just the feeling; this is an old town, a street worn deep by generations of feet; when I walk here, I'm hip deep in other peoples' stories.

It'd be good to be able to tap them up from the stones, as you navigate the tarmac with your feet; you'd never be short of contact then, always be someone new to meet.

I first saw Mr Beller's Neighbourhood a few years ago. It's a bit old now, the story-tellers' birds-eye view of New York, but still in use; and still very close to this idea about stories located, mapped, put in their context. Some of the stories are photo stories; each time I find it I go for a photo-story about defaced Britney Spears photos on the subway which caught the blogwinds briefly with a googlejuice-boosting mass of derisive links. Because there's no way I'm ever going to remember its name.

I'm never going to have time myself, but I wish that someone should do one of these for London or for Oxford. There's already some nicely folksy Oxford mapping stuff, but it's all one person's vision. What interests me is the multitude. Views of Oxford (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else) always seem to end up giving a singular perspective. That's the Flickr Oxford group, by the way. It's funny.

I'd make a few changes, of course; offer alternative navigation via streetmap or arial photo, open but filtered submission via a click on the maps or arial photos (you'd have to be able to review that, check you got the right place), sortable also by contributor, new comments, latest ...

But this is pie-in-the-sky, I don't have time right now to build a story-filled world inside a computer. But I might do something half-arsed, maybe. Put up a map somewhere and start putting links on it like Niznoz and the rest of the arial taggers do on Flickr -- but not just for photographs, images on their own aren't really enough for me. I need the stories.

* When I was growing up we were encouraged to take an interest in nature. One of the activities involved being rather nasty to caddis fly larvae. Caddis worms have no natural protection against predators, so make little cases for themselves out of sand and tiny stones stuck together with secretions. With a pin and a little care, this tube could be removed; you could then put the caddis into a jam jar containing glitter, sequins and tiny beads. In a day or so, it would have built a new and very sparkly home. You could then pop it back into the pond, where its shiny arse would be quickly spotted by predators, or do the whole thing over with dirt and stones this time. Other entertaining games included feeding tadpoles slivers of gizzard and then watching them eat each other. Yay for nature.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

when does record keeping start keeping a record of you?

Chatting with the sociologist (about photo-blogging and its effect on personal history-making) and the musician (about sound art and wanting to hold onto transient sounds) left me wondering about ordinary things and nostalgie de la boue.

I'm drawn to the pictures (thoughts, entries, projects) about small, incidental things -- the accidental juxtposition of a telegraph wire and a house, the sound of water slapping against a bridge, a red biscuit wrapper in the gutter -- transient, fleeting moments. Step by and it's gone. Unless you make the choice to record it.

One of the threads in blogging (and photo-blogging especially) seems to be an attempt to lift this transient joy out of the moment -- pickle it. Put it in aspic. Digital aspic.

But is this a healthy urge? Does it encourage you to take more joy in your surroundings or does it turn you into camera-eyes, always looking for the "right" moment? Do you end up weighed down with ordinary beautiful things? Or is it a sort of dirty street nostalgia -- not just, "I was happy at that moment" but also, "life was ordinary at that moment, and I was happy".

Nostalgie de la boue means unexpressed longing towards grubbing around in the dirt and fantasising that contentment can be found there. It's the middle class urge to get back to the ground, buy the farm, work the land. I don't like it; the word boue means mud, and I don't beleive that truth can be found in the mud.

Or rather, I do; but the only truth that you will find is that mud is mud*.

So where does that leave those photographs of posters, streets, buildings, shoes, benches, graffiti and gutters that I take, that I look at? Am I using them to indulge this urge to wallow in muck?

In a way that probably annoys people who take the craft more seriously, I take photographs to relax, largely without plan or reflection, and usually because I simply see a pattern that I can intercept, steal a 2-dimensional slice to keep.

But now this supposedly relaxing action suddenly become suspect. Are the photos infected with this gutter nostalgia? Or is there something even worse going on?

What if this mosaic of superficially random photos is actually, through my refusal to take or make to a plan, simply turning out something which is faddish, fashionable; that just accepts an emergent, socially-received pattern of the correct photoblogging behaviour ... and, like the couple who later discover they gave their kid the exact same picked-at-random name as every other damn kid born that year, I'll look back in six month's time and realise that everyone was doing gutter nostalgia?

But wait, is that a bad thing? It is worse to be wallowing in waste and trivia (undisciplined, nostalgic, weak) or to be swayed by approval and fashion, weakly shaping your images to the prevailing acceptable photoblog pattern? -- wait, that's a bit judgemental, isn't it? How about "influenced by popular and infectious themes and memes, fluidly selecting the images presented to reflect the ebb and flow of online image presentation" ... and then, suddenly this ties in tidily with the work I'm doing with random generation, spam, google and the selector/receptor position which the internet persuades the browser into ... and all of a sudden, taking the photos, far from being relaxation, suddenly becomes part of the work.

So what now? Go looking for something a little more extraordinary? Snap my fingers and dismiss it all entirely?

I'm probably overanalysing quite an ordinary, currently fashionable, urge toward saving the disposable, celebrating the ordinary, just as fly-on-the-wall and webcam thrills, repeats of Big Brother, and films like Lost in Translation (a strikingly bloggish film) do in popular culture. The culture and history of ordinary life (we file it under "local history" at the bookshop -- where "local" I suppose is defined as personal/home/everyday) is perhaps still underrepresented in studies of the internet, whose history had been largely written from a business/technological/guru perspective, with the the unimportant, ordinary users of the internet, the chatters, journallers, photobloggers, sidelined as irrelevant. Maybe.

Or maybe there are photobloggers who are writing a history of the internet, of ordinary life, of photoblogging, but the internet gives back not one history but a forest of them, and all partial, inconsistent, chance as much as any refining process deciding what gets listened to -- although places on the internet with a powerful sense of their own importance would doubtless disagree.

Even on a very tight topic (yourself, for example) what makes it into the written/visual record is very random; odd and personal selections, inconsistent scraps of information, misleading or fictional elements, and all the refining, sorting and revising (and people do revise blogs) which writing your story of you makes possible.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) is not my life.

Occasionally I slip my camera into my pocket and think, "no, I'll keep that for myself." I don't think I'm alone in this, either; I've seen others saying similar things, or doing things like keeping a boyfriend/dream/project quiet on their blog. Sometimes it reflects insecurity or superstition, but I also see the idea of preserving, reserving, a private space.

Putting something into an open public arena can change what it means. As more people see an image, its reality becomes louder, but not necessarily more focussed. Is the ubiquitous kitten photo meaningless and easily dismissed, or actually increasing in importance with every referrer? It's a trade-off ... and it's not easily controlled, either. When I was boing-boing-ed I'm fairly sure my name was never mentioned. I was just "that barbie porn thing". Ironically, for a page that didn't even contain any barbies.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) isn't about public recognition.

It's for socialising, for entertainment, sharing out the fun stuff , and keeping it all to hand. Not just as a record, but using the act of repitition and recording to "fold over" a memory -- make the experience more fixed in your own and others' histories.

But is there a flipside of anticipating that later fold-back? From taking a photograph for putting online later, to planning a night out as a potential photo-story, to thinking about an experience, "well, this is shit, but at least it'll make a good LJ entry" there's a slow but steady transform being applied to the life of a blogger/journaller. The online fictional performance is beginning to exert an authorial pressure on the life of the individual; and given how much of Livejournal's interaction is approval-based, is this healthy? Are you running to a broader, more diverse and/or sympathetic group for approval?

Or are you just crawling back into a different schoolyard?

* and a variety of other similarly obvious breakthroughs.

While I was thinking through some of this a photojournaller (who values his privacy so I will not refer) made the comment, "a lot of the time we record what is in front of us without adding anything" and I replied:
I'm not sure that's actually possible, really -- and I'm also not sure whether "good" and "bad" -- especially when related to comments gathered (in a very short period of time!) are useful terms.

Take your blog as if it were a magazine job -- who's your audience and what do they want? They're urban, literate -- like London, words and self expression -- of course the graffiti shot is going to appeal. So what about the pub shot? It's London, there are words, the way the arches and the railings and the lines of the building pick up on each other gives that sense of place ...

But there's a bit of confusion about it -- what are you trying to say? What's your story? Where's the route for the viewer through the picture into what it means to them? Even visually, the simple vanishing point vs. the more complex zigzag makes for a composition that's harder to follow quickly.

That it's less obvious doesn't make it a "bad" picture, however. What it might make it is less likely to gain instant approval from an audience of blog-readers with many demands on their attention.

At A4 size, in a magazine spread, the graffiti shot might look obvious and crass, the pub shot compelling and involving.

Which again, isn't to say you shouldn't put certain types of pictures into a blog -- as you say, experimenting is how you find these things out -- but I think it's a mistake to jump from "nobody commented" to "it's bad".

Those pictures above, for example -- you say you've not added anything -- you're missing the most fundamental thing you've done, which is to freeze that perfect gig moment when the light falls on the singer and the emotion seems to leave from their face, their body outwards.

And it's true you can do that yourself, but, hey. I wasn't there.

Now, let's see if I can follow my own advice.