Collective Photography
Collective Photography
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Collective Photography

Table of Contents

Introduction

My name is Pete Ashton. I currently describe myself as an artist who works with photography. A year ago I would have reluctantly called myself a photographer and was thinking about what it meant to be an artist.

To this end I took on a mentor, Karen Newman, who was in the process of setting up the Birmingham Open Media lab, and she helped me apply for an Arts Council Grants For The Arts award, which, somewhat amazingly, I got in July 2013. I was suddenly officially “An Artist”. Which was nice.

The grant was to research and deliver and series of participatory photography walks in Digbeth, Birmingham, and in doing so develop my career and practice as an artist.

This book, Collective Photography, along with the extensive appendices, totals everything I’ve written on the subject over the last year and was produced in part to help me gather my thoughts for the evaluation report the Arts Council requires.

It serves as documentation, evaluation and exhibition, amongst other things, and as such it is bitty and at times incoherent, but it should be of use for anyone hoping to undergo a similar experience.

I am one of those artists who has not gone to art school, nor do I have any desire to. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be “an artist” if they chose to be and that, for all its many flaws, the Grants For The Arts scheme is a good way for non-graduates to achieve this.

As such the book is also about my figuring this stuff out. If Art is deliciously ill-defined, what does it mean for me to be an artist?

My website is peteashton.com and I’m on Twitter as @peteashton. Come say hi.

Timeline

March 2013

Met with Karen to discuss “becoming an Artist”. She recommends Grant for the Arts funding for personal development.

April 2013

Met with Peta Murphy-Burke from Arts Council to check viability of my plan and to get feedback on draft application.

May 2013

Grant for the Arts application submitted.

July 2013

Grant for the Arts funding awarded. Research period starts.

Shimabuku photo walk workshop run for Ikon Gallery.

September 2013

Research trip to Ars Electronic Festival in Linz, Austria.

Still Walking festival.

Psychogeography workshop run with Cathy Wade.

October 2013

Art Walk run for WeArtB38 festival in Hall Green.

Hurvin Anderson photo walk workshop run for Ikon Gallery.

Research trip to Bristol.

November 2013

THE WALKS.

February 2014

Spaghetti Junction walk.

Presentation at Bees In A Tin.

March 2013

Digbeth walk.

April 2014

Research trip to Resonate festival in Belgrade, Serbia.

Queensway walks begin.

May 2014

Cancel remaining Queensway walks.

June 2014

Start Birmingham Camera Obscura project with Jenny Duffin.

Start getting ideas straight and writing this book.

September 2014

Presentation at Birmingham Loves Photographers

Finish the book. Submit the Activity Report.

October 2014

Move on to the next thing.

Collective Photography

Collective Photography was going to be a book about what it means to take groups of people on walks where they take photographs together.

I decided to write a book because when you’re trying to get your head around a lot of complex ideas, deciding to write a book seems like a really good idea at the time. It turns out it’s not such a good idea and this is not that book, but it is a nice collection of some of my thoughts in that area.

What it actually winds up being about is my becoming an artist over 12 months through understanding what it means to take groups of people on walks where they take photographs together.

Slow Down

“Your tours have now made me unable to walk at ignorant speed. Looking at detail is slowing me down, but bringing me joy!” – Fran, Photo School walker

Every month, from 2012 onwards, I would take groups of people, between five and twenty, with cameras, on a walk through an area of Birmingham. I’d lead them on a relatively short route at a very slow pace, usually covering a mile in 90 minutes. I’d point at things and the people would take photos of them, or they’d take photos of other things. I’d call it a Photo Walk.

The current run of Photo Walks started as a bit of promotion for the Photo School classes I was running at the time with Matt Murtagh. The classes would start with an hour indoors setting the theme for the day (the street photography of Cartier-Bresson, for example) followed by a two-hour workshop in the streets of Birmingham, tied up with a two-hour session reviewing everyone’s photos as a group on the big screen. Since photography teaching is a relatively busy field we thought extracting the middle bit and running it on its own with no bookends would be a good sampler of our style.

Photo Walks aren’t new, though. We were adapting something we’d been involved with for a number of years.

Flickrmeets

In 2004 the photo-sharing website Flickr was launched. It was fairly popular with bloggers and, as a blogger who took photos for my blog, I signed up for an account. Flickr was interesting because the photos you uploaded could be made discoverable by putting them in groups or by adding tags to them. A photograph of, say, Birmingham Town Hall would be tagged birmingham, town hall, building, victorian, victoria square, pillars and might be included in the Birmingham, Buildings of Britain and Victorian Architecture groups. People who checked those tags or groups might look at your photo and leave a comment or mark it as a favourite. These things seem mundane to us now but they were pretty revolutionary back then.

Flickr groups emerged in the same way Wikipedia entries are created - someone noticed there wasn’t one for a particular subject so they set it up. The Birmingham group was set up in this way and while nothing was really done to promote it a bunch of us gravitated towards it, adding our photos of the city and slowly making connections. As well as the pool of photos, each group has a discussion board and, naturally, we started chatting about the city we all called home. In September 2005 I posted an idea under the subject “Outing”:

How about an outing?

I’ve been thinking that I could do with some motivation for going to places in Birmingham to take photos and this struck me as an idea.

We agree on a place and a time somewhere in the city, meet up there and go take photos. Say somewhere in Digbeth at 2pm on Sunday, that kind of thing.

Then, after an hour or two of photography, we retire to the pub for a bit.

Anyone up for this?

Three people turned up and we went on a walk through Digbeth taking photos. It wasn’t a roaring success but we enjoyed ourselves and that’s all that mattered.

Come the Spring I put out another suggestion to the Birmingham group and this time the group responded with more interest. We agreed to meet in the Jewellery Quarter this time and do our walk-and-shoot around there. Twelve people turned up and 249 photos were uploaded in the days after. None of these people had met before this day and it was a bit awkward at first, matching up screen-names with real names. Some of these people became good friends, some drifted away, but the Birmingham Flickrmeets, as we called them, still happen every month to this day. While I’m no longer involved it’s one of the things that I’m pretty proud of.

The same is not the same

The Flickrmeets were important to me for a number of reasons, but the relevant one here was the notion of photographing as a group. Photography is a solitary experience. The photographer literally puts blinkers on, shuts out the peripheral world, and directs their attention to the rectangle in the viewfinder. It is not an activity that lends itself to collaboration. Even when two photographers work together on a shoot, one will be the assistant, serving the vision of the capital-P Photographer.

So while the Flickrmeets were social occasions, we took our photos on our own. We might notice what others were shooting and be inspired to look that way too, but the act of clicking the shutter was a personal one. That is, until we put them on the Internet.

The notion of a photo pool, or photo tag, is quite interesting as the authorship of the photograph is in some way diminished by the whole. Those 249 Flickrmeet photos comprise a work in and of themselves, created by a group. We were not thinking along those lines but the collaboration is pretty clear to me. It really comes out when you spot the same subjects being shot by different eyes. Each photo was so very different, finding angles and approaches that others hadn’t noticed. For someone keen to learn from their peers, this was a revelation.

“I don’t like photographing things other people have photographed. It’s like they’ve been done already.”

A student in a Photo School class

A photograph isn’t a just a record of a thing. It’s the creative act of capturing reflected light where decisions are constrained by the environment. Those decisions are personal to the photographer and make the photo, no matter how mundane, theirs alone. How those decisions are reached is what makes the act of photography so interesting. Because you cannot be that person at that place at that time with that frame of mind it is impossible for you to take the same photo. But you can learn from them.

On the Jewellery Quarter Flickrmeet we were collectively attracted to a yellow-painted brick wall. Everyone submitted at least one photo of the wall to the group. The different ways each person interpreted that wall fascinated me. And these weren’t “artists” - most of them wouldn’t have called themselves “photographers” even. The price of decent digital cameras had recently dropped to affordable levels and these were just people, some students, some professionals, some young, some middle aged. And together they created a thing.

Productising the photo meetup

Groups of photographers have been meeting up and going on walks together for as long as cameras have been portable, so there was nothing special in the Flickrmeet. Still, as Matt and I were developing Photo School it felt like we could do something with this model, even if it was just to promote our classes.

We ran our first photo walk during the Still Walking festival as a free fringe event, leading people through our favourite spots in Digbeth and showing them how to take pictures of them. It was booked out and was a success so I scheduled a walk each month developing three routes through Digbeth. Meanwhile Matt started developing a route under and around Spaghetti Junction, where he had grown up, and we ran that every few months as an afternoon excursion. And then, in the winter, we ran tripod walks through the city centre, giving people a chance to take long exposures at night in relative safety.

The walks quickly became an important part of the Photo School offer, even if they didn’t bring in that much money. People liked the chance to be in a group and go to places they wouldn’t normally go. But they also liked the slowness of the exercise and the chance to be a photographer, something their non-photographer friends would find annoying.

Anatomy of a walk

After I’d exploited the Flickrmeets for my own financial benefit, like a parent might send their child to the workhouse, I started to notice they might have been even more interesting that I’d previously imagined. They break down into roughly these areas of interest.

Photography class. The walks provide an opportunity to “be a photographer” and practice the act of taking photographs. I run mini exercises in seeing, composing and thinking about photography. It’s very loose and unstructured but people do learn stuff.

Guided Tour. I am a tour guide, taking people into unfamiliar territories and framing their experience along a prescribed route. The power and authority I have over the group, and their implicit trust in me, is quite surprising. By effectively playing a recognisable role and following an archetypal template I am able to make the participants see the world through my eyes, or at least see my framework as the dominant one to be respected or rejected.

Narratives and histories. I describe my walks as containing “a bucket of local history, hidden knowledge and unsubstantiated myth”. We stop at key points of photographic interest where I tell stories, some drawn from reputable sources, some half-remembered pub tales. If we have someone who knows more than me I invite them to share, something they’re often happy to do. The walkers come away not just with new knowledge but with a tangible sense of place.

Social activity. Early on it was pointed out to me that the walks provide a valuable social function. They give people a chance to meet in a non-threatening, low-pressure setting. I get a lot of single people who are new to the city or just looking for something to do on a weekend that doesn’t require a date. Thanks to the photography, people are able to stay quiet and keep to themselves, if they want, whilst benefitting from being in the group, but there is also ample time for socialising. I don’t share contact details but those who put their photos in the Flickr group can get in touch through there.

My artistic practice. Alongside enabling the above I am also doing something for myself. The walks tap into lots of the things that interest me as an artist: collective photography, ubiquitous cameras, photography as performance, and above all the creative engagement with the world mediated by technology. Seeing the walk as an artwork in itself helps me to process and develop my thoughts around these areas, and it’s something I want to explore a bit more in the next chapter.

Photo Walks As Art

Walking On

The idea that walking can be an artform struck me as a really weird one. Most mediums in which art is formed - singing, poetry, dance, painting - tend to be distanced somewhat from everyday activities, but walking is walking, right? How can going for a walk, the most universal thing in the universe, be art?

I think I came across Art Walking first through the Still Walking festival in Birmingham where, amongst other interesting people, artists would be commissioned to do guided walks through the city. I was expecting them all to be artists who did things other than walks but for some of them the walking was the practice.

The closest I’d come to this was my friend and inspiration Nikki Pugh’s project Uncertain Eastside where she walked the periphery of the Eastside development zone with two GPS receivers and recorded the variance between them - built-up areas bounced the satellite signals around creating a larger difference in readings. To do this she walked the route again and again, taking her measurements and creating her artwork.

I had naively assumed that the walking was a means to an end. That the artwork - a poster-sized rendering - was the thing. What it took me years to realise was, for Nikki, the physical “product” was only part of the thing. The walking was an equal, if not more important, aspect, because, as I understand it anyway, that awareness, that being in the place in a mindful way, is her art practice.

The Still Walking festival coincided with my research phase and served me well by bringing a load of artist from around the world to my doorstep, so I attended them all. The ones by “walking artists” were the most fascinating because there wasn’t anything else but the walk and an informal discussion afterwards. The walk was the work and it stood alone.

By chance I heard about a touring exhibition called Walk On, surveying artists who had used walking in their work, which was due to come to Birmingham in the Spring. The exhibition catalogue, which I ordered, was a lovely thing giving each artist a blurb and sample of their work, but it left me a bit empty. Either the curators were deeply invested in art-speak (in which I am not fluent) or this “Art Walking” thing was terribly ill-defined and at best a crude way to gather otherwise disparate artists together. That’s not a bad thing as it allows for new connections to me made, but it did warn me off thinking of “Art Walking” as a coherent movement or school.

That’s not to say there aren’t artists who don’t coherently and effectively build the practice around walking - there are. But attempts to give the notion form are still nascent. And that’s a good thing.

Tour Guide meets Collective Shoot

In this context the “art-thing” for me happens at the intersection of the solitary act of photography and group act of guided walking. What do I mean by that chunk of jargon?

When I lead people on a walk it’s very obviously a performance. I have a script, both in terms of the route I plan to take and the manner in which I present that route. I have a role, that of the expert, the guide, and I play that role as a character quite similar to Pete Ashton but different enough that friends have commented on it.

The whole event is mediated by my decisions. The participants have their experience directed and informed by me. I decide what they see and inform how they see it.

There’s a view that the walk itself is the artwork. I perform for 90 minutes to a small participatory audience and then we all go home. I think this view has merit, but I don’t know if this is the “art” I’m looking for. For example, you could say teaching is an artwork. People gather in a room where the teacher performs and they leave with their worldview slightly changed. Is this fundamentally any different to seeing a play in a theatre? I don’t know, to be honest.

I do know I play the same character when I’m teaching as when I’m leading a walk, and that my ability to be “a photographer” is diminished when I’m in this role. Photography, for me, is a personal process that edges into meditative at times. I find I cannot take decent photos while I’m running a workshop or a walk because I cannot get into the right mindset. (Amusingly I have no decent photos of Curzon St Station despite telling hundreds of people how to shoot it.) So I’d be happy to go along with the notion that my taking people through this process is, in some way, a “work of art”.

But these are more than performances. They are more than classes. People are taking photographs, engaging in creative activities which have outcomes in the form of photographs. This is where I think I am being an Artist creating a Work, not as the producer of a walk but as a director of other people’s photographs.

I’ve often thought of a Photo Walk as a group of cameras attached to people over whom I exert an amount of control. I use the methodology of the tour guide to broker a situation where people are prepared to let me control their lives for a short period. As such any photographs that emerge from this process are, in some way, informed by me. I can consider the mass of photos that emerge from these walks to be “the work”. That is, if I can get hold of them.

Photography, for me, is about working with constraints. There are obvious physical constraints such as where you can place the camera. Natural constraints of light and technical constraints of the equipment used. There’s also the constraint of photography itself – the issue of thinking in terms of a rectangle of coloured dots instead of with your eyes. All these problems serve to make photography a vibrant and exciting artistic medium.

So the idea of attempting to influence a dozen or so autonomous agents in how they might take photographs and the results being “my art” is not a strange one. An important part of art, for me, is understanding when to exert control and when to just let it be. When to influence and when to not. It’s about developing an understanding of the subject and developing a relationship. My subject is the areas I lead walks in but also how those areas are perceived. Evidence of that perception is often the work.

Drones, drones, drones.

It’s interesting how the language of armed combat lends itself to photography so well and I do wonder if anyone has ever done a decent study of it. The viewfinder is similar to the scope, the we talk of shoots, of capturing moments. The whole methodology of the Decisive Moment, where a photographer finds a scene and waits for something interesting to happen in it, is not that different to a sniper in a hide, waiting for the target to appear. The camera itself, especially the phallic appearance of the SLR body with a long lens, looks like a gun. The moment of releasing the shutter is, I’d imagine, not dissimilar to to pulling the trigger on a target. To go out taking photos in the wild is, in essence, a hunt.

So it’s not too weird a stretch that I’ve started to think of myself as a drone commander. These are the folks who sit in an army base in front of multiple screens directing aerial drones around the Middle East, shooting video and shooting missiles as appropriate. What’s interesting about the drones is they are semi-autonomous. As well as explicit instructions they are also given a remit, commands to execute depending on the circumstances. If you sense certain radio signals send an alert. If you’re over an area we haven’t scanned in a week perform a scan. Rather like a Roomba working its way around your carpet, drones are given a framework and operate autonomously within that framework. They are programmed.

When I take people on a photo walk I program them. I place them in a new environment which I carefully contextualise from the outset. I direct their route, aiming them at key targets along the way and directing them in how to photograph those targets. Along the way I encourage them to select their own secondary targets, following the programme of “being a photographer” within the context I set.

This is not to diminish the role of the walkers. It’s just a way of showing how they hand over some control to me while maintaining significant autonomy. They are guided.

Planning some new walks.

After a year or so of running walks, and with the growing realisation that they were much more interesting in this form that I’d initially thought, I decided to investigate the form further. I applied for an Art Council Grant For The Arts to cover a range of artistic development that would result in a series of new walks in Digbeth titled Photographic Exploration Of Place.

I was awarded the grant, which was fantastic, so now I needed to deliver the walks.

That moment when something theoretical suddenly becomes real is quite a strange one. Because there was a very good chance I wouldn’t get the grant - it was my first application and there have been dramatic cuts in arts funding across the board - I’d been acting as if I wouldn’t get it. At best they’d suggest I resubmit with modifications and that would mean another couple of months of waiting. So I assumed the worst and lined up some work for the rest of the year.

When the yes came through it took a while to adjust to this new reality. My hopes, which I hadn’t gotten up, were now realised. I now had to devise and deliver these walks.

So where to start?

If Wet

Sound had been on my mind a lot that year. I’d been going to If Wet, a monthly meetup of sound artists and experimental musicians in a village hall in Worcestershire. Initially I went to support my friend Sam Underwood, who runs it with David Morton, and to take photos, but it has very quickly become an important part of my creative life.

At If Wet the musicians or artists present their work to their peers in a relatively informal setting. There are performances but they are accompanied by explanation of the ideas and techniques involved. A lot of the time they’re addressing issues that arrive at the frontiers of music making, sharing their discoveries and asking for advice.

While I have a musical family and can hold a note I’m not a trained musician and certainly not a peer of the people at If Wet, so I treat it slightly differently. Whenever they talk about sound, I think about light and how a photographer works with light. Recording sounds = recording light. Manipulating sound = manipulating light. Performing sound = performing light. And so on.

It doesn’t always work and sometimes it takes me down a dead end, but as a mental exercise it’s a great way of getting out of the photographer mindset.

One of the ideas I got from If Wet came from Kathy Hinde who describes herself as “an audio-visual artist” and whose talk was effectively an informal version of this one for NESTA where she talks about “open scores”. The idea of writing a score for photographers, in the same way one might write a score for musicians, was very interesting. It tapped nicely into my musing about group photography and this idea of restricting the photographer.

Being a good photographer seems, to me, to involve understanding the limitations and working with them, not against them. Having the wisdom to know that it is impossible to replicate reality on a flat rectangle and, instead, to treat these limitations as possibilities. To understand that, to quote Garry Winogrand, “photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”

So how would the world look photographed if the photographer was given a score? And who would be the author of those photographs? Those are the sort of questions If Wet prompted in me.

Active Listening

During the photography workshop I ran for the Ikon Gallery during their Shimabuku exhibition I became aware how a dramatic change in the sensory environment can affect people’s photographs. We started in Brindley Place around the cafes and pedestrianised squares before crossing Broad Street to the canals of Gas Street Basin. On Broad Street, a busy main road into the city filled with bars and noise, people’s photos become agitated and rushed. Then, when we got onto the canals, the peace and calm also dramatically informed their shots. This was not unexpected but it was nice to have a good example of how the environment changing the mood can inform the photographs.

The SoundKitchen collective of musicians/sound artists ran one of the walks for Still Walking that autumn around Edgbaston Reservoir where they asked walkers to engage in “active” and “augmented” listening to “experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives”. I found this exercise fascinating as it mirrored some of the things I ask people to do on photo walks, only with their eyes instead of their ears, and gave me a route to build on the lessons learned at If Wet.

In short, could I use the techniques SoundKitchen were using to change peoples’ mood to make them see their environment differently? And could that change be seen in their resulting photographs?

Theories of Space

The nature of a photo walk is that it is a journey through a place, and so understanding what traveling through place means felt important. To this end I decided to research how places can be explored, specifically the vague and ill-defined school of Psychogeography.

I put out a call on Twitter to see if any of my theory-infused art-friends would be interested in running a Psychogeography workshop and Cathy Wade said she would be. I titled the session Practical Psychogeography Workshop - Walking the City in Curious Ways and we ran it on September 16th at the A3 Project Space in Digbeth where Cathy is a curator. Here’s the blurb:

Psychogeography is one of “those” terms. Annoyingly undefined and often rejected by the very people associated with it, it refuses to go away, cropping up whenever the relationship between people and place is pondered.

The literature of Psychogeography can seem willfully obscure. Many have eagerly opened an Iain Sinclair book only to retire crying in defeat, and what was Stewart Home on about exactly? Then there’s the French and all that Flaneurism with tortoises and revolution. Seems like a lot of fuss to make about going for a nice walk.

During this workshop we’ll look at some of the key ideas that make up Psychogeography, from Enlightenment London through 19th Century Paris and the 60s Situationalists to the recent Millennial musings of Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Stewart Home and Bill Drummond.

There’s a lot of ideas in there so having stroked our chins for a bit we’ll quickly dive into the practical side of things, chopping up maps, scribbling on the walls and dreaming up new ways of navigating the city. And then we’ll get out into the streets and put these ideas to the test. Finally we’ll return to base for food and to talk about what just happened and make plans for the future.

As befits the subject matter the aims of this workshop are deliberately loose but we hope you’ll come away with the following:

  • A deeper understanding of where Psychogeography came from and what it might be useful for.
  • New ways of looking and appreciating the city you live and work in.
  • An inability not to notice the curious.
  • The warm glow of a fun evening well spent.

We had six attendees and after Cathy went through the history and theories of psyshogeography we dove into the practice, chopping up and scribbling on maps with the intention of using them later on walks guided by the rules established. One pair had found a route by hanging pens from metal “dousing rods” over a map to see what they drew. This took them to the middle of a roundabout on the ring road. Another pair rolled dice at every corner to - 1-3 for left, 4-6 for right - to see where change would take them. Finally the third pair cut out shapes from the maps and rearranged them to make a new map, then tried to follow it.

The end result was spectacularly inconclusive, not too surprising given the nature and breadth of the subject matter, and I left with no idea if the event had been a success or a failure. People seemed to enjoy it, for sure, but it was probably the first indication that I might have bitten off more than I could chew with this project.

Bringing it together

So, running a couple of months behind my original schedule, I started planning the “deliverables” - the walks that would form the culmination of this period of funded activity. The one constant that had stuck with me through this process was that I was interested in how an experience of a place can inform a person’s impression of that place, and how those experiences can be mediated by experiencing or practicing art.

Sound continued to play an important part in my thinking. When we’re navigating a space, sight and hearing are the primary senses used, though they do work in very different ways. What people saw would obviously inform their photographs but what about what they heard? How could I affect that?

I decided to work with people I’d consider peers in the world of sound art. SoundKitchen were an obvious choice after their walk around Edgbaston Reservoir and were up for collaborating on two walks, while Sam Underwood would enable me to bring the ideas fermented at If Wet directly into a walk. A fourth walk would be run by me alone, but in the end the weather prevented me from doing this. The missing fourth walk would finally manifest itself in July 2014.

The Walks.

Some of the photos taken by participants on these walks, along with audio and documentary photographs, can be downloaded from art-pete.com/collectivephotography.

Walk 1 - Guided Listening with Iain Armstrong of Soundkitchen.

The preparation for this walk involved myself and Annie Mahtani walking around Digbeth looking for locations that had both interesting sights and sounds. We decided to start outside Curzon Street Station next to Millennium Point, moving to the middle of the field next to Eastside Park for some distance listening/looking. Next we stopped under a railway bridge taking trains in to New St Station before walking to the Latif’s car park next to the Birmingham Dogs Home. Finally we explored the massive brick railway viaduct at Allison Street before meandering down to the bustle of the Custard Factory.

On the day, Iain Armstrong lead the listening exercises, effectively tuning people’s perception of the environment through their ears. He used different techniques for each section which I tried to translate into photographic techniques. So when he asked people to listen to distant sounds I got them to look for distant subjects. When he got them to hear movement I asked them to photograph movement. The instructions were simple, giving people freedom to interpret them loosely, and the resulting photographs were very interesting.

Walk 2 - Micro-listening with Sam Underwood

Sam’s walk was theoretically similar to Ian’s but had a distinctly different remit. While Iain had very much been exploring the landscape I wanted Sam to help people explore the details. Sam brought a van-load of tools - contact microphones, stethoscopes, hydrophones, amplifiers and headphones - so people could hear the small sounds that echo through the fabric of Digbeth. I wanted to relate this to close-up and abstract photography where the photographer gets in close and reveals aspects of a place not obvious to the casual eye.

We started under the arches at the Custard Factory with a quick demo of Sam’s Sonic Graffiti project embedded in the brickwork before embarking on possibly the slowest walk I’ve ever run. It was more a meander and we barely covered 200 yards in the first hour before I stopped the listening and jumped us forwards to the canal. People were really exploring their environment with the listening devices, seeing what otherwise familiar objects sounded like and discovering these new worlds.

How this effected people’s photographs is uncertain. At the very least the process of following sounds lead them to places and subjects they might not have found with their eyes alone. Thinking “what will this sound like” before switching to “how can I make a photograph of this” is a novel route, to be sure. But the resulting photos felt to be more documentary than works in themselves. “Here is a photo of something that sounded interesting.” Unlike Ian’s Soundkitchen walk, where the listening and seeing felt nicely balanced, this felt more like a listening workshop with a bit of photography tagged on.

Walk 3 - Soundtracked walk by Annie Mahtani of Soundkitchen.

The third walk was organised with Annie of Soundkitchen though I lead it on my own. She had prepared a 60 minute soundtrack which I asked participants to listen to at the same time as we walked together along a predefined route.

Annie’s soundtrack was built up from field recordings made in Birmingham, meaning it was often hard to tell what was a natural sound and what was coming through the headphones. This did make for occasional discombobulation when sounds emerged in the “wrong” places (traffic on the canal, for example) but the effect was possibly too subtle for the participants to notice any change in their moods.

Also, given the purpose of the soundtrack was to alter their framework from the norm, having a walk that took people to places they wouldn’t normally go (the backstreets and canals around a busy dual-carriageway ring-road) meant the base-line of “normal” was already a bit odd. It might have been better to do this in a more familiar environment like a shopping centre or family park.

My original plan was to take the photos and sync them up with the soundtrack, creating a new artwork from people’s photos but I couldn’t make it work effectively so I abandoned it. Of all the walks this was probably the most difficult to deal with as an artwork and thus taught me the most lessons.

Aftermath

Once I’d completed the walks I really didn’t know what to think and, to be honest, put the whole thing on hold for a couple of months. They hadn’t turned out how I’d anticipated and while that was a great thing it did leave me slightly confused. But I did have some immediate thoughts.

A good audience is hard to find

The thing that hit me was how hard it had been to get “normal” people to come on these walks. I’d assumed that by selling them through Photo School, where I had 500-odd newsletter subscribers, I’d be able to get a nice group of 10 or so people from a broad demographic. In the end I had to invite peers and friends along to make up the numbers, which radically changed the dynamics.

This felt like the biggest failure on my part. In my funding application I wrote

My photography teaching, through search engine placement, reaches a gender and ethnically diverse group with ages ranging from 15 to 70. Many do not consider themselves to be engaging in “art”. This as my base audience.

One thing I’ve noticed about Art events in Birmingham is they tend to have the same faces on them. Getting out of the Art bubble is hard and I felt with Photo School I’d managed to break through that in a small way. But one of the criteria I picked up from the Arts Council was that participants should be aware they’re involved in Art, so I put that up front and clear. I think this was a mistake.

For whatever reasons, “Art” is a turnoff to most people. I don’t pretend to have any explanations as to why but it definitely felt like switching from Photo Walks to Art Walks was a massive barrier, and since I wanted photos from as wide a range of people as possible, being restricted to my bubble of friends and acquaintances was a problem.

I tried to fix this with the series of photo walks I ran in Spring 2014, promoting them as photo walks with the artistic content hidden from view but again getting attendees was hard.

Of course it could be that my walks were just unappealing and didn’t meet the needs of the audience. The photo walks are part of an educational offer, helping people learn how to use their cameras. Anything more than that is a bonus and often comes as a surprise. Pushing the bonus while ignoring the need is, in retrospect, a massive mistake.

Like most good lessons, this one didn’t offer up answers so much as raise bigger questions about audiences and participation which I don’t think I’ll even being to understand for a good while. Suffice to say it was a humbling experience.

The walk is the thing

One of the biggest blocks I had to overcome was being able to see the walk as the artwork in and of itself. Even when I’d accepted that other people could do walks and call them artworks I still felt the need to have these walks be a means to an end.

For each of the walks I had a follow-up artwork in mind. For the first I wanted to use the field recordings made during the walk to accompany people’s photos. With the second I actually didn’t have a coherent idea but hoped something would emerge. With the third I wanted to use the timestamps on people’s photos to sync them with the soundtrack they’d been listening to.

When it came to do these, though, they didn’t seem worth it. I did some trial runs but they were rubbish - uninteresting and not up to whatever standard of “art” I might apply. They were merely photos displayed with sound.

A few months later I was thinking about Hamish Fulton’s work and revisited a documentary film of Group Walk which he did in Birmingham for Ikon and the Fierce Festival in 2012. I love that film, but it suddenly occurred to me that the film was not by Hamish Fulton and did not represent his artwork. It was by Chris Keenan, an artist in his own right, who had used Fulton’s work as raw material. The two things are connected but very separate in their execution.

I was thinking that I needed the equivalent of Keenan’s film. Unfortunately I’m not Chris Keenan. But more importantly, the walks don’t need outcomes. They are outcomes.

The Next Six Months

The original plan was to produce an online “exhibition” for the walks (I never wanted to do an actual physical exhibition preferring something virtual and mobile-friendly) and get the evaluation all tied up by Christmas. That didn’t happen. This book is effectively the exhibition and I’m happy about that. Now, eight months after the walks I think I’m finally ready to tie a knot in it.

Going right back to the beginning, the driving reason I decided to apply for a Grant For The Arts was, simply put, to turn me into a proper Artist. After Karen Newman agreed to be my mentor we sat down in the in a Digbeth pub and I talked at her for an hour about all the things I’d done which I thought were art, might have been art, and definitely weren’t art but which I enjoyed doing. Karen soaked it all up and, half-seriously, wrote some Art-Speak blurb for me. Here’s what she wrote:

Pete Ashton’s work explores the collapse of time and space in the digital age. He uses a range of media, including photography, animation, the Internet, performance and low-fi materials, creating interventions in real and virtual spaces that challenge us to look closer, calling to question the very experience of seeing in today’s media saturated world.

Performative gestures underly Ashton’s investigations of time and space. He sets rules and parameters that shape his work, such as locating every photo other than his own that has been uploaded to the Internet with the file name IMG_4228; attempting to photograph the planet Jupiter; photographing every other bus stop on the number 11 outer circle bus route in Birmingham; or making a journey to find the source of a river. This performative ethos follows through to the physical artworks, which often require the participation of the audience to complete the experience.

For an installation at Birmingham’s Central Library, for instance, Ashton invited passers by to peer through cardboard constructions to view animations on obsolete CRT computer screens. Ashton created the animations from photographs made through the difficult process of TtV, using a different viewfinder to his camera’s to photograph passers by against the backdrop of familiar architecture. Provocatively installed inside the window of the Birmingham Central Library, an iconic building of brutalist architecture on the brink of being destroyed, Ashton’s intervention into public space dealt, first and foremost, with the problem of getting local people to stop and look, and secondly, getting people to see beyond an aesthetic facade and find intrigue and delight at what lies beneath.

Key words: Seeing / looking, Experience, Consciousness, Catching people’s attention in a world of visual overload, Performance - yours in the process of making / others in the process of looking or viewing, Setting rules / Parameters / Instinct & restraint

Reading that now it seems odd to me that we decided the photo walks would be the best thing to develop as, while they are important to me, they don’t seem to have much overlap with the loose collection of activities I’d retroactively called my “art practice”. But they were the thing I felt confident in delivering. A platform I was familiar with and could develop.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about art I learned from Nikki Pugh a few years ago, though like all important things I keep needing to be reminded of it. It also crops up in the excellent Art & Fear from which I take this quote:

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.

For the artist, process trumps product. Or as Nikki would put it, the artistic practice is more important that the artworks that emerge from that practice. So, if the point of this funded period was to develop me as “an artist” both creatively and commercially then it cannot be judged purely on the artworks that I made during it. It has to be judged on some other criteria.

So let’s look at some of the more personal things from the funding application.

Increase my artistic profile

Judging the state of your profile within an ever-changing community is fraught with dangerous assumptions but while I can’t say if my profile has increased I have certainly made steps to adjust it.

Over the last year I’ve been gradually referring to myself as an Artist first and foremost. Within the arts and culture communities I’ve mostly been know as a “social media” person, thanks to the legacy of the Created in Birmingham blog, and as that sector has coalesced and industrialised out of my comfort zone I’ve been keen to change that perception. I’ve always seen online tools and communities as opportunities for creative practice rather than a new space for marketeers to exploit but the narrative of the latter has mostly won out. So one of my aims of this process was to get people to stop thinking of me as a social media and internet consultant and to start thinking of me as an artist.

I believe this has started to happen. Ikon, who I have previously worked with on a website project and a couple of photo walks through their education department, have commissioned me to run a walk this summer as an artist as part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations. I had a very constructive rejection from the Fierce Fwd artist development program and was invited to apply for the Vivid Black Hole Club.

Secure opportunities to create new work / Lay foundations for new collaborations with arts organisations

I would say I am in the process of laying foundations for creating new work but there are some significant developments. The aforementioned walk for Ikon and Still Walking was a direct result of this funded activity, developing ideas of augmented group-seeing for a walk themed around the five venues the Ikon Gallery has had over the last 50 years.

I have started a collaboration with producer Jenny Duffin developing a Camera Obscura for Birmingham. We have built a giant camera on wheels which we are taking around the region this summer to generate interest for our five year project to create bigger and better camera obscurae in the city. We plan to run workshops and events in association with arts organisations in the region exploring the fundamentals of photography and manipulating light in art. While not directly related to the subject matter of the funded activity my approach to this was definitely informed by it.

Building a solid foundation for my work

In hindsight, the word “foundation” is vaguer than I would have expected but I have seen my seemingly disparate ideas and interests start to converge into what feels like a coherent practice.

The next project, which I hope to produce with support from Vivid’s Black Hole Club and the new Birmingham Open Media laboratory, combines the following:

  • Media transduction through the sonification of images.
  • Photography as performance.
  • Collaboration with a musician.
  • Slit-scan photographic processing.
  • Compression of time into a single image.
  • Photographic and Musical composition.

It will also see me developing my skills in programming (either Pure Data or Processing) and hardware hacking (Arduino or Raspberry Pi) to build the equipment to my specific requirements.

A year ago I would not have been able to bridge these interests. Having now placed my artistic practice at the centre of it all, I am able to unify them with a coherent foundation.

In a way it doesn’t matter what direction my art practice moves in. I have over the last year figured out how to turn my interests into something productive and hopefully of use. The importance of this to me personally cannot be underestimated.

Make me a valuable resource for arts organisations

This is another tricky one to judge as it’s still early days and I can’t accurately say what a “valuable resource” is. At the very least my confidence as an artist can augment my workshop and teaching activities in an arts context. When working with Ikon, for example, I am no longer “just” a photography teacher, I am an artist who is able to interact with their exhibitions on that level. The work I deliver has also changed its nature somewhat, moving away from basic technical skills towards basic compositional and creative skills. Or more prosaically, from knowing how to change the aperture to knowing when to change the aperture.

Bees in a Tin

In January I applied to speak at Bees In A Tin about my work. Bees In A Tin was pitched to the world like this:

Bees in a Tin is a gathering [..] presenting a host of exciting people who make or are interested in unique interfaces for the world around them. Expect new experiences, performances, talks, artefacts, ideas (and other excellent nouns).

Contributions from some world-leading and boundary-pushing folk will range from robotics to artefact and game design, geology to make-believe, political choreography to transmedia jam, and (if you can imagine it) MUCH MUCH MORE.

Bees in a Tin will feature talks and workshops from key makers and thinkers from around the country as well as two panel sessions for audience questions (and plenty of time to chat in the breaks). If you’re interested in the spaces where the arts, science, technology, and games crash into one another, apologise, and then buy each other a drink: then this is for you.

Here’s my application:

An introduction to yourself I am an artist, photographer and photography teacher based in Birmingham, UK. I run Photo School through which I teach Beginners photography and run photography walks in Birmingham. These walks form an important part of my artistic practice.

An overview of your project I regularly take groups of people on photography walks through Birmingham, mostly Digbeth but also other areas. Using photography as a framework I get people to slow down and develop a new appreciation of their environment which they carry through to their everyday lives. Recently I have used an ACE-funded period to research and develop these walks which I’ll be relaunching in the Spring.

What you would like to do at the Bees in a Tin event I would like to use Bees on a Tin as a platform to present my findings on urban exploration mediated by photography in a group and as a goal to work towards as I continue the research and development through January and February.

My application was successful and I was given one of the half hour workshop slots. Here’s a photo of it happening My presentation was effectively a rough draft of this book asking for feedback from my peers, and the feedback was certainly useful. If nothing else it told me I was on the right track, even if I still wasn’t sure what that track was.

Post-walk walks

Since running the walks in November I’ve run a number of similar walks which have inevitably been informed by the research and development stuff. Let’s look at how a few of them worked out.

Spaghetti Junction in February was the first time I’d taken a group out since November. It’s a walk I’ve run a few times before through Photo School, exploring the paths and canals underneath the sprawling motorway junction in north Birmingham, and it was not in Digbeth so it provided a nice benchmark. It is also a very simple walk to lead, given the awesomeness of the monolithic architecture, allowing the guide freedom to relax and improvise.

Mostly the walk ran as it usually does, but at one point I realised we were right in the middle of the junction, the eye of the storm, as it were. I asked everyone to stop and put their cameras down, close their eyes and just listen to the rhythms and drones of the traffic. It was a small thing and didn’t formally flow into the rest of the walk but I think it shifted it from a pure photography expedition into something more aesthetically driven, something about appreciating our sensory environment in different ways. We were finding beauty in what many people would consider a concrete eyesore. This listening exercise helped us find music in noise pollution.

In March I ran a photo walk in Digbeth following the “classic” route around Fazeley Street. It was fun but it wasn’t interesting. It felt like a step back, in some ways. A return to what I was doing when I started thing this. I decided at that point to take a break from Digbeth and try something new.

Starting in April I scheduled eight 90 minute walks a fortnight apart. Each walk would explore a small section of the Queensway ring road that circles Birmingham’s city centre core and together they would comprise “an artwork” of some sort made up of the photos groups took on them. But each walk also stood alone as a no-pressure, fun exploration of bits of Birmingham people normally avoid or race through. I sold the walks on the Photo School website with this description:

Each walk will start in a different location on the Queensway, easily accessible by bus or train. We’ll then spend 90 minutes slowly exploring the nooks and crannies of the streets and buildings in that area, some polished and vibrant, some derelict and forgotten.

The walks build on our method of using the camera to Slow Down and Look Closer at the city we live in. And then we’ll make photos of what we see. Some will be glorious landscapes, some will be abstract close-ups. All will be of Birmingham.

Educational

The walks are informal and friendly. All cameras are welcome from phones to DLSRs to film. If you’re a total beginner or just curious about photography you will be very welcome.

We will be photographing as a group, which leads to some interesting things. Being in a group can give you confidence to try new things, to do stuff you might be embarrassed to do on your own.

Group shoots can also be educational as you see how others approach their subjects. There’s something enlightening about ten photos of the same thing by ten different people. With this in mind we’ll be asking you to share your photos with the group after each walk.

But above all you’ll be able to take photos at a slow and thoughtful pace, giving you the chance to practice your photography without boring your non-photography friends.

Artistic

As well as leading the walks Pete will use his Magic Artist Powers™ to help you see things anew. Pete has spent many years perfecting his Looking At Things™ skills and will be delighted to assist you is developing your perception receptors through his patented Finger Pointing™.

After the eight walks Pete will create a new artwork about the Queensway using the routes and, if you want to submit them, your photos. What this might look like he can’t say because he doesn’t know but it’ll help shed new light on these areas of the city and inspire others to walk these areas too.

Unique

These walks will only be run once. After the summer Pete will take the experience and move on to something else.

The first three walks went well but as summer emerged the bookings started to dwindle. Even tying in with the Birmingham Architecture Festival only brought in a couple of walkers. And I wasn’t feeling it. The idea felt forced. I was missing a point. And from a business point of view I couldn’t justify ploughing time and energy into promoting walks that weren’t resonating with my existing audience. So I scrapped them.

The cancelling was part of a wider consolidation of Stuff I Was Doing, prompted by needing to clear the decks before my wedding in July (there’s nothing like keeping a wedding on track to bring home the need for clear decks) but it did raise an interesting dilemma. The tools available to these days make it very easy to start stuff but quite hard to stop without feeling like a failure. The Queensway walks were an experiment, deliberately breaking the successful formula I’d stumbled upon in Digbeth to try something new. And they were didn’t work, but that was okay.

Art is about trying and failing and trying again, because if you play it safe then you’re not doing art. You’re making stuff to order. Which is also okay, but it’s different.

Or at least that’s what I told myself.

Ikonic Places

I’d been doing a few workshops for the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, specifically with Simon Taylor, their head of education. We’d figured out a neat system where he’d take a group on a tour of the current exhibition, getting them to think about why the artist decided to make the work they did, and then I’d get the group to take photographs in that mind-set. We did this for the Shimabuku show last Summer and the Hurvin Anderson show in the Autumn and it worked really well.

This year Ikon started their 50th Anniversary celebrations and wanted to tie with Ben Waddington’s Still Walking, the festival I’d been using as a primary research tool over this period. Ben and Simon asked if I would run a walk. I, of course, said yes.

The nice thing about this was it wasn’t going to be a workshop run by me in my photography teaching capacity. This was an Artist Walk. I had, under the radar, been commission by Ikon as an artist. Which was rather nice. I’m not 100% they realise that happened.

The walk was titled Shooting Traces of Ikonic Places and was pitched to the public thus:

Starting in an octagonal kiosk in the Bullring in 1965 the Ikon Gallery has had five permanent venues in Birmingham city centre. As part of the Ikon Traces season, artist Pete Ashton asks if these locations still have residual art-power. Armed with key examples of visual art from Ikon’s history and channeling the ghosts of past venues, we will tune our eyes and look at the city through this filter. Then, with our aesthetic neurones firing, we’ll take photographs, creating new artworks from the vibrations of the old. This is a lighthearted and fun walk open to everyone with a camera and a willingness to look at the city in new ways.

The walk sold out. So we were definitely on to something!

There were three levels to my thinking. Firstly there were the locations of the first four Ikon venues, all within the city centre core. I wanted to treat these as sacred places to which we might make a pilgrimage. This is not an unusual thing as whole swathes of the heritage industry are invested in the fact that something once happened at a particular place a long time ago, even when the building itself doesn’t exist.

I wanted to play with this concept a bit, made even more futile by how Birmingham has been dramatically remade over the decades. The first Ikon was in the old Bullring shopping centre which was obliterated in 2000 making it’s exact location impossible to pin down. The second was in a since-demolished mortuary while the third was in the currently under-reconstruction shopping centre above New St Station. Only the fourth is still there on John Bright Street.

It wasn’t enough to simply stand there though. These spirits needed to be invoked. At the Bullring I stood on the point I’d decided was the location of the 1960s Ikon, an octagon kiosk, and asked the participants to stand around me and form an octagon with their arms. From the middle I then read out a list of all the artists who had exhibited there. The list was long enough to feel a bit weird but hopefully not too long to be boring. It was one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” things but it did set the tone.

We then started our walk to the next venue at the other end of New Street, but not before I’d handed out the second part of my thinking. Each person was given a pack of five colour photocopies of artworks that had been exhibited at Ikon in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They were instructed to look at a piece as if they were in the gallery. Really look at it and take it in. Then, with it imprinted in their minds, I wanted them to take photographs.

The idea here was to see if our aesthetic sensibility could be programmed, or at least mediated, by artworks. This was an explicit callback to the sound walks in November but more directly related to photography in that I’d chosen mostly visual 2D art rather than sculptures or installations.

Finally there were the photographs themselves, something that didn’t need to be explained because taking photos is an utterly normal and mundane practice. But as an artist I continue to find how people decide where to point their camera and when to press the shutter fascinating. I wanted to be sure that, from my perspective at least, the photography was on the same level of importance as the locations and the artworks.

All three formed a series of framing devices. Seeing what effect those framing devices had was the purpose of the walk.

Afterwards I found myself in another confusing state, uncertain how to judge the success or otherwise of the walk. But I think I’ve finally worked it out.

When you’re leading a group walk you ceed a lot of control over the process. You guide, but you don’t direct. With my walks I create an environment where people are free to do certain things, like walk slowly and take photos, while restricted from doing other things, like stray too far from the route. I provide stimulus but I cannot dictate its effects.

When we say “the walk is the artwork” I think we’re talking about the experience of being on that walk, in the same way people experience a play in a theatre or a band on a stage or a story in a book.

My problem has been the pesky photos people take on these walks and my desire to do something with them. It’s taken me a year to realise that the photos themselves are irrelevant. It’s the taking of the photos that matters.

That moment when someone, informed by the ideas and sensations that surround them, notices something and decides to make a picture of it with their camera.

That’s the thing.

Appendix 1

Surveys of people who’ve been on my walks.

Surveys

I did two big surveys during this project. The first was of attendees of my walks prior to summer 2013 to lay the foundations of the application. The second was of attendees of the November 2013 walks for evaluation purposes. For some reason I got no responses from those who attended the first walk.

Pre-Walk Survey

How, if at all, did the Photo Walks affect your photography?

It was great to share inspiration & be taken to areas I wouldn’t have felt comfortable exploring alone.

Showed me to look at the details rather than the whole.

The photowalks have re-ignited my love of photography and have encouraged me to get more out of my camera. I love the concept of pottering about, very slowly!, with a group of like-minded people, then sharing images over Flickr. It fascinates me to see other people’s images from the same place, taken at the same time and how they’re all so different. The Digbeth walks in particular have helped me to identify a genre of photography I really enjoy - broken things, dereliction and urban decay. I’ve been in photography clubs before and they can be a bit stuffy… this one isn’t. Finally, the photowalks have encouraged me to come into Brum by myself, with my camera and wander around for an hour or so, finding the less obvious things to take pictures of.

Gave me chance to take photos in places I wouldn’t normally go to on my own. Pete was on hand to give advice as necessary and it was also great to talk to fellow ‘photographers’. Pace of walk was good to enable us to look at the area in detail and take photos that interested us. It certainly helped me to play with camera modes etc and I got some interesting shots.

Inspired/taught me to think in terms of: - more creative options: eg, I’ve created narratives and themes that tell a story of a place on a photowalk. - taught me to slow down and think more about my shots and how they are composed. (There is an easy temptation in digital age to shoot first, and see what you have later.) - ideas on looking at things in a different way - there is an alertness and artistic temperament that photowalks trigger for me - they act as a catalyst to get in the right frame of mind for creativity and help gear up the brain in a different way. The resulting photos are very different (better?) from what a tourist would take. It is a deeper experience.

Walking with a group of other keen photographers means that you can stop, start, look, point the camera without feeling like a madman ( madwoman ). The new found freedom this gives you does you good! I found it quite a liberating experience and I am sure that after doing this a few times ( plus as you become more confident with your camera ) it will change how I can take photos in an urban environment. In general, a very positive thing to do.

I think that the walks have been one of my most useful experiences in trying to improve taking photos. They provide a motivation to try out different things both creatively and technically.

Made me consider using my camera in ways I hadn’t thought of before, or simply that I was doing some things plain wrong.

Yes, taught me to slow down and look more before shooting.

I probably lookup more now. Take in the surroundings - try to see what others miss.

I am a total beginner but was able to ask for advice so yes.

It has improved my photography by helping me to learn a little more about my camera and what modes are better suited to what type of shooting.

Encouraged me to look more closely at things I would previously have walked past

By watching what other people took photos of, it gave me an insight into what might be good subjects. It also made me more aware of potential photographic clichés.

It was a great opportunity to get feedback and views on my composition which I feel has improved following the session.

How, if at all, did they change the way you look at Birmingham?

Yes - there’s some fascinating architecture & history. So much more than the obvious places to explore!

Yes, never really been to Birmingham to take photos, only shop. There are a lot more interesting places to find than the shops.

I’ve got to know Digbeth as a result of the walks and I’m even considering it as a place to live! Otherwise, I’ve had chance to explore a city I have come to love (I’m not a native) and see it from different angles.

I am born and bred in Birmingham and have often driven in the area of Digbeth but have never seen it on foot. Great to see the architecture of buildings and canals. Pete was able to tell us a little of the history of the area.

  • I see more options now. Everything tends to be seen at a middle distance when just walking through the city. But slowing down and taking time to either zoom in on a close-up subject or pulling back to see ‘god in the landscape’, as Photoschool explains it.
  • I feel more able to explore areas in a safe way. Photowalks in a group really open up the city and areas that I’d never go to alone, eg, canals, Spaghetti Junction, Digbeth’s back streets.

Just doing photography changes the way that you look at many things. How you appreciate just about everything - in the visual sense. An abandoned building can turn into a photographic opportunity instead of being a lump of bricks and concrete that you have ignored for years on end. Unappreciated and derelict areas of a city turn out to be historically important and hence more interesting. Realising that desolation can be beautiful and even inspiring. Knowing more about a place makes you feel more at home plus… you can impress your mates when out for a pint with all the new found information.

I lived in Birmingham all my life and the walks have taken me to places that I had never been!

I don’t think it’s changed the way I look at Brum so much - as I’m already a ‘fan’ as it were - but I’ve discovered some great parts of it that I didn’t know existed.

Yes, to look above the shop fronts and beyond the hoardings and to find the image in the ordinary

Like most people in Birmingham, we just pass through Digbeth - maybe occasionally stopping for the a pub. But walking around the backstreets showed another world. In some respects a sad world of dereliction and decay, still time moves on and whilst it’s sad to see waste land/empty buildings etc it’s nice to be able take pictures of them. Sadly I look around Birmingham wishing I had a bug for photography in the 80’s 90’s

Yes Digbeth is really cool and we went to spots that you would normally just overlook or not even go to.

I don’t live in Birmingham so it enabled me to look at new interesting places and learn about the history.

I learned a few interesting things about digbeth that i didnt know before. I was definitely worth it.

Made me look for little details

Spaghetti Junction is a beautiful place and Salford circus, which we went to at the end of the walk, is truly amazing. I’d never have thought to go there.

I have mostly passed through Digbeth without paying much attention however during the walk I found the history fascinating. The deliberately slow pace allowed me to take the time to focus on the amazing amount of details that I would otherwise would have missed!

Anything else you’d like to say about the Photo Walks?

Very nice walk. The pace enabled me to capture what I wanted and I enjoyed the social aspect of it too.

They’re very relaxed, well run, informative & fun! Great value for money & pitched just right!

Pete and the people attending are all friendly, really enjoyed the two times I’ve been on the walks. Will book again soon.

The photo walks are suitable for absolutely anyone with an interest in photography, however slight, and all experience and skill levels are catered for. If you need help you get it, if not, there’s no interference. I think Matt and Pete have got it spot on.

Great way to visit area of the city I wouldn’t go to on my own to take photos. Good to meet Pete and other people on the walk. We all had a common aim - to take photoghraphs and the informal but formative nature of this walk was really helpful. Pete was very attentive and took great care to make sure health and safety were paramount. I fully intend to attend other of Pete and Matt’s walks.

The social element is important. You never know who you’ll meet or getting talking to. It’s something to do on a Sunday. Good exercise, good for the mind and body. It feels inclusive - whereas the Flickrmeet walks I’ve been on feel competitive and attract more dedicated photographers.

A totally brilliant idea. Here are the choices… 1/ mooch about at home moaning about having nothing to do or that there is nothing on the tv or…. 2/ Get some fresh air. See places that you didn’t know existed. Meet other people interested in photography. Have a guided walk led by someone ( friendly but also professional ) who knows about the area PLUS can give you some useful tips on photography. Popping into a pub when the walk finishes. All this for the cost of a cinema ticket. In the parlance of our cousins across the water… go figure.

Keep going!

It’s nice to meet people with a common interest and I’ve had some great feedback from other photowalkers regarding my images, which is always a good thing. Booking a photowalk also ensures that I actually take time to use my camera. That is, it’s a good motivation to go out and get involved with photography and other photographers.

The Photo Walk experience was a great way to spend time with other photographers, exchanging ideas and learning - I can thoroughly recommend it for all levels of experience from beginners to experts

I’ve attended a couple of them and plan to do a few more when time/family allows - it’s been a great experience opening my eyes to search out hidden streets and landmarks.

I plan to go on more!

Rather than just walks it would be good to have technical tips.

It would be nice to do different areas of birmingham.

Good value for money

I would certainly attend another one. Although the walk was helpful (and advice was available, if sought) I’d have preferred a slightly more didactic approach, rather than the very “hands off - let people shoot what they want” style that was adopted. It might help if attendees were able to say in advance what they’d like the walk to concentrate on (composition, light, lens choice etc.) to give the walks a little more focus.

I would recommend them to anyone interested in photography or history as the opportunities to learn about either are fantastic.

Walk 2 Survey - Listening with Sam Underwood

What were your expectations before coming on the walk?

Well, definitely thought listening, picture-taking, and Digbeth would be involved. Otherwise I didn’t really have any idea.

Take photos of things in Digbeth that usually pass me by

I wondered whether the walk was for ‘professional’ or expert photographers with high standard cameras and equipment - and if the walk would be suitable for those with a general interest and a smartphone with a camera on it. I also had expectations that the walk leaders would offer advice on taking photographs. I also expected the walk to be original and contain the ‘unexpected’. This was mainly due to knowing Pete Ashton before the walk and awareness of Sam Underwood’s sound art activities from following Sam on Twitter. My expectation was that I would do something I would not typically do on a Saturday afternoon!

I assumed it would just be a fairly standard walk around Digbeth, photographing dereliction and stuff. I didn’t think there’d be as much “audience participation” as there was, and that the group would be led/inspired by the microlistening, rather than doing it themselves.

That it would inspire me take different photographs from normal. That it would be fun. That I would see Birmingham in a different way.

How did you find the introduction?

Great location and good guidance to getting into listening to all the layers of sound around us.

It was very useful information to know the background of both walk leaders, but I wasn’t sure how it connected to the main activity. Examples would’ve illustrated this better rather than just talking.

The introduction by Pete and Sam was helpful and set the mood for the walk. Playing with the amp plugged into the viaduct wall, and listening to the city sounds amplified by the viaduct arches, got me thinking and made me feel relaxed in the group.

The introduction was inspiring, and the sonic graffiti piece was awesome.

Yes - but it was a bit too long, and the weather was cold, so wanted to get on with it. 10 mins max would be better. Or perhaps host it in a cafe before the walk starts.

What expectations of yours were met?

Walking, taking pictures, using sound equipment.

It was very odd (in a good way), I discovered a lot about a small section of Digbeth and it was definitely very cold.

The walk was original and surprising - which met one of my expectations.

Taking photographs of dereliction.

All were met - I went to different places and saw things I wouldn’t normally see (a drained canal for example) and also looked very very closely thanks to the stethoscope listening exercises.

What happened that you weren’t expecting?

Sound graffiti demonstration, history lesson about the gate where two different canals meet

My ears were hurting. I didn’t think I’d be dipping things into the canal

Listening to brickwork, buildings and large objects through a stethoscope! The level of autonomy I had in choosing what to photograph.

As said I didn’t think it would be so hands-on, with members of the group all using the stethoscopes and other gadgets. I also felt that this provoked more interaction amongst members of the group who didn’t know each other.

That I went much slower when doing the micro listening walk - every metre at that level was the equivalent of walking 10-20m on a normal walk.

The micro walk I was too busy concentrating on the small details to mix much with others.

Did the Listening and Looking combination work for you?

At first I was definitely combining them, but as the group started to move faster because we got behind schedule, I started to lean more toward just taking pictures of things based on how they looked. Then when we slowed down again under the tunnel I went back to trying to take more sound-oriented pictures.

Somewhat. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take photos of things that make a sound or listen to different objects

Yes, the combination did work for me. Understanding the concept was difficult at first. It gelled when Sam encouraged us to use the stethoscopes, mics, etc., and I became more active at concentrating on the sounds of the city and materials I was physically striking. One difficulty I had with the combination is that I felt more receptive to audio stimulation - and able to perceive for details in the audio - with my eyes closed or unfocused.

At first it seemed really stupid, but it was surprisingly easy to get into and I felt it got you “closer” to what you were photographing, and put you in a state of mind where you were both closer to your subject (in the sense of being able to spot small details) and also less inhibited about taking photographs.

As above. Micro listening drastically affected the kind of photos I took - lots of extreme close ups and abstract compositions.

Which of the following applies to your experience?

Enjoyable, Enlightening, Silly, Playful, Inquisitive, Educational Enlightening, Silly, Inquisitive, Educational Enjoyable, Enlightening, Playful, Inquisitive, Meditative, Creative, Artistic Enjoyable, Playful, Inquisitive, Meditative, Creative, Silly/absurd, in the best way Enjoyable, Playful, Inquisitive, Meditative, Creative, Artistic, Passed the time, Social

What thoughts did the walk provoke?

I had thought about sound previously in how it (only partially consciously) affects the overall feel of a scene but hadn’t really focused on it at that level before. It makes me wonder what else I’m missing. The sound graffiti also made me wonder what else is hiding around!

I was pleased to stretch my imagination in an artistic activity. I don’t consider myself ‘artistic’ in any kind of visual way, and this walk encouraged me to challenge that perception of myself. The walk also gave me the freedom for a few hours to concentrate on something artistic - and to also just let my imagination play for a while without interruption.

It made me think about participating more in arts events in the future, whether as spectator or artist.

It made me think of that there are almost too many options for taking a photo - that I wanted to find a focus.

What feelings did the walk provoke?

Glad to be living in Birmingham, where this kind of thing exists and the people on it seem unpretentious.

Strangely, I felt quite peaceful after the walk. While we were walking in a group, it was quite loose-knit and I spent much of the walk in solitude. The concentrated listening and photographing caused me to be quiet and to lose myself in the activity, rather than engage in a group chat.

Creativity, happiness, inspiration.

I felt more ‘artistic’ in the micro walk. The soundtrack walk, I felt my focus was much more long distance - easier on the eye but less fulfilling creatively.

How did the walk affect your perceptions of Birmingham?

My perceptions were already primarily positive and it added to the positives. Found some new corners I hadn’t seen yet and I liked the people there.

Encouraged me to spend more time looking at things instead of rushing past. I don’t think the walk changed by perceptions of Birmingham. This may be due to the fact that I am very familiar with the Digbeth area and landmarks along the route we took.

It made me think how much space there is in the city and how empty of people those spaces are. There is no way I would go walking in those areas and along canals on my own.

How did you feel about your photographs from the walk?

Visually they were worse than normal because I wasn’t focusing only on the visual. But in terms of remembering the full experience of being in a place, I think they are better than normal because they’re at least in part focused on remembering the sounds too.

I feel pleased with the photographs I took on the walk. I definitely considered the composition much more than I would normally do, particularly in terms of texture in the photograph. My photos contain serrated metal wire, macro shots of distressed wood, metal and polystyrene - the texture of materials photographed is the result of how I perceived the sound of those materials.

I didn’t think my photos were any better or worse, although maybe there was more variety in the set I produced than if I’d been going around on my own.

Definitely more detailed and zoomed in on micro walk. More downbeat on the soundtrack walk.

Walk 3 Survey - Soundtracked with SoundKitchen

What were your expectations before coming on the walk?

I expected, and got, a different approach to taking photographs. The following comments relate to all of the walk, but I will split into the arbitrary sections. I didn’t expect it to be as different as it actually was. (in a good way). Referring to my notebook, having to listen to the soundtrack (which started very quietly), I was surprised by a loud noise - the sound of a car going over a loose manhole cover - not part of the soundtrack! My attention grabbed, I not only took close-ups of the manhole cover but immediately noticed all the extraneous debris about it…

Nothing really - just something interesting and photography-related to do. Like Digbeth, so thought would see some more of it that I hadn’t explored too.

I try to be open minded and not set my expectations too much as this may impede the exercise , the one thing I wanted to do was push my self rather than doing the more traditional photo exercise. Also to meet some fellow photographers.

I had never been on a photo walk before so did not know what to expect. I was hoping for interesting music that might make me feel more or less energised accordingly. I have quite varied tastes so was interested in listening to different genres whilst on the walk. I was also interested in meeting other amateur photographers and walking through areas of Birmingham with my camera whilst not being too worried about being mugged! I like architectural/urban photography so I was hoping that this walk would be a good opportunity to partake in this kind of photography.

Not sure what to expect - never had done a photo walk before, so went with an open mind.

I’ve been of Matt and Pete’s photo walks before so understood the format, but what intrigued me about this walk was it was to be completed listening to a sound track.

How did you find the introduction?

The introduction was clear and concise giving details of both the walk and the safety considerations. Knowing photographers, Pete made sure that, if anyone got left behind, they had adequate means of re-finding the group.

Yes, it was very easy-going and covered everything, plus set the mood.

Yes , too much pre-amble would “influence” you too much.

Yes the introduction set the scene, let us know what the plan was and what was expected of us.

Good - succinctly explained, covered what to do.

Intro was fine

What expectations of yours were met?

On a Sunday morning in Digbeth, I was sort of expecting the vomit, bottles, glasses and rubbish. I wasn’t expecting the beauty that a Sunday morning can bring even to that…

Timing, mood, distance covered, range of things encountered

A different experience using two senses more fully and I met some fellow photographers

The meeting of other photographers that were kind enough to help me with a feature of my camera that I didn’t know how to operate. I was also satisfied with the location of the walk - I saw some interesting architecture, scenery and graffiti which I enjoyed and would not have seen otherwise.

Area of digbeth we walked around was really interesting.

Although being in a group, I was (as were the others) isolated by the sound track. So it concentrated the mind on photography whereas I’d normally be distracted.

What happened that you weren’t expecting?

I enjoyed the soundtrack one less - the ambient sounds blended too well with the environment and I wonder if music or more varied input would have had more of an effect. Perhaps less collaborative than I thought - the soundtrack one was more solitary due to the headphones and that was nicely meditative.

Whilst on the walk In was expecting to be able to produce a sci-fi photo short showing a post-apocalyptic world. When I reviewed the photos, even those in that frame of mind were too beautiful to match the idea.

The unusual location at the end! In a good way. Lots of people seemed to know you (Pete)!

A couple of surreal moments - Listening to birds chirping as if on a Summers Day but on a canal bank with grot and graffiti around with sea gulls overhead !

Nothing.

I expected the soundtrack to be more music, almost film like as opposed to ambient music, but it was interesting. The garrison lane park was really interesting, didn’t realise it was there.

I actually wasn’t distracted and I think I managed to work in isolation pretty much for the 1.5 hours

Did the Listening and Looking combination work for you?

Hard to say. I ended up with quite a desolate/oppressive set. Maybe that will be reflected by others. Would be interesting to see how upbeat or happier sounds might have affected me.

At times, yes. I looked at Pete at one point thinking it was the soundtrack to find it was actually a real (Thrush I think) bird. That did not detract from the experience. I heard it because I was listening…

I think it did, but I can’t be sure. Being a scientist, I’d have to conduct two equal walks in the same place at the same time, one with music and one without, with all other variables controlled ;) But then the groups would influence each other, so you’d have to find a parallel universe with the same music, Digbeth, people etc and conduct them in both universes… all very time consuming I’m sure! Slightly more seriously, I was expecting more ‘music’ than sounds, and more dominant/distinctive sounds at that, so I think the effect may be subtle the way it was done.

In parts , unfortunately the volume of sound was very hard to hear , noise cancelling phones would may have helped but a bit OTT to have these as a pre-requisite.

The music was more subtle than I anticipated. As such, for a large part of the walk, I didn’t notice it at all. This may have been the aim although I wouldn’t have minded noticing the music more. For example, the beginning of the sound track included traffic noises and played whilst we were walking down a large busy road - i’m not sure the music affected our experience of the real life situation as it was the same. Similarly, whilst we were walking down the canal, there was more natural music which reflected our more green surroundings. If it contrasted in some way, there might have been an interaction. At one point I did recognise that the music sounded ominous and thinking back, that coincided with me photographing some ominous looking graffiti. Also, whilst we were walking along the tow path and the music included bird song, I did take a photo of some berries. I do not usually take photos of nature so this may have been prompted by the music.

A lot of the time, I didn’t really notice the music, because it was quite background, ambient. Listening to the music meant that everyone was a lot more focused on taking photos, which meant I took a lot more photos than I expected.

Yes, I think it did have an effect. Though with the soundtracked walk I was trying to consciously avoid cliched images that directly matched the sound element.

Which of the following applies to your experience?

Enjoyable, Enlightening, Creative, Artistic Enjoyable, Enlightening, Meditative, Creative, Artistic, Educational, Astonishing Enjoyable, Playful, Inquisitive, Creative Enjoyable, Inquisitive, Creative, Artistic, Educational Enjoyable, Playful, Creative Enjoyable, Enlightening, Playful, Inquisitive, Creative, Artistic, Educational Enjoyable, Enlightening, Creative, Artistic

What thoughts did the walk provoke?

Intellectually? I was sure I had a post-apocalyptic world grabbed.

Wondered why I want to take pictures, and of what. So examined my motivations.

Made me ask myself a few questions

I thought about the design of the area, in particular the lesser known beauty of the canal side and parks coinciding with the urban, functional, perhaps brutalist surroundings including the large, busy roads, railways, business premises and the impact of urban creativity in the form of graffiti etc.

Really interesting - made me think of what impact sound has on photography.

I have a problem with been distracted easily, so the soundtrack walk gave me more evidence that if I isolated the distraction I can be more creative/productive.

What feelings did the walk provoke?

Happiness.

Liked the shared experience - positive feelings. Wondered whether everyone was being influenced by each other, or even competing at taking photos… what emotion is that, then - paranoia?! Curiosity?

Stimulated me

It was an enjoyable experience that was also calming. I felt relaxed afterwards and had a happy glow that I had spent some time discovering the area and enjoying my hobby at the same time.

Made me really calm, interested in my surroundings.

Not sure to be honest.

How did the walk affect your perceptions of Birmingham?

Having walked (and photographed) the whole of the canals in the Birmingham area, In thought I could find little that was new to me. Stalactites proved me wrong.

Positively. Found some good sights and sounds. Not to everyone’s tastes, I’m sure, but that wasn’t the question…

Saw areas I have not seen before and the “mound” at the end was a real surprise.

I appreciated the individuality of the area, as mentioned earlier the functional beauty combined with the creativity of it’s inhabitants in the form of graffiti.

Hadn’t walked round a lot of that part of birmingham, particularly looking at the details, so was really interesting.

As with all the walks it highlights the need to stop and look around

How did you feel about your photographs from the walk?

They are not post-apocalyptic. They show an inner beauty forbidden to those without the urge to look.

I think the usual - mixture of mostly ‘meh’ shots, some ones that I thought were good at the time and were after, plus some that I thought were good at the time but weren’t. Usual self-justification as to why I would have done it different/better next time / with more time / better light etc!

More themed , I stated taking B&W as this is my favourite look , but felt the look not appropriate to the experience as it was slightly surreal and so chose an in-camera effect that has more saturation to match the more intenseness experience

Some of my earlier photos were worse. In hindsight, I think I was trying to find photos where I wasn’t particularly inspired to. Probably the nature of going on a dedicated photo walk where there is an expectation to take lots of photos. Also, I wish I had thought of (or perhaps had time to - i’m still new at photography!) experimenting with depth of field in a particular photo which would have benefitted from this. As part of being in the group though, I was freer to take lots of photos which ordinarily annoys my husband!

Different - a lot more close up, detailed shots than normal. Wider range of photos. I’m happy with the work, probably better than my normal rushed work I find I do. I need to fine more time for photography - in fact that’s now going on my personals goals list for the year!

Appendix 2

Blog posts relating to this project from art-pete.com/blog.

Art Blog: July 2013 - March 2014

Performance Photography

July 1st 2013

One of things I’ve been considering over the last few months is how photography can be performative, in the same way that theatre, poetry, music, etc can be performed live in front of an audience in a manner which is unique to that moment. My obsession comes from two areas. The first is an utter disinterest in prints and galleries. I like prints and I like seeing things in galleries but I have no desire to see my work in them, especially when I can have 100s of individuals to look at one of my photos through Twitter and Flickr (should the photo deserve it, of course). The effort and cost involved in printing, framing and hanging photos seems utterly without reward and a diversion from the work I should be doing - the making of the images themselves. That’s not to diminish the value of the gallery as a space in which interesting things can be done by artists, but as a means of allowing people to look at photographs we’ve pretty much solved that problem with computers, in the same way we’ve solved the dictionary problem or the CD problem. To paraphrase Egon Spengler, Prints are dead to me.

But thinking of a gallery show of photographs as a “performance” is still a bit of a stretch, so let’s consider my second thought. It quickly struck me that the Photo Walks I’ve been leading in Digbeth over the last year are a kind of performance. I take people through a planned narrative and “perform” the role of a guide or expert. While I have no theatre training at all I can tell that this is theatre of a kind. And the notion that my “act” and the mood I create in this “audience” can inform the sorts of photos people produce is intriguing to me. But I’m not sure this counts as Performance Photography. The great irony of the walks is I hardly take any photos on them. I was asked for a shot of Curzon St Station the other week and despite leading dozens of people to it I didn’t have one I was happy with. When teaching a class or leading a walk I’m very much not in the photographic mindset. The performance I’m doing, while informed by my photography, is not photography.

A good model for this notion of “performance” is a guitar player on stage. They create sounds using a machine which is amplified into a room where people listen to the music. A camera is a machine with creates images. The issue seems to be the amplification of these images into the room. I say issue as I’m very reluctant to go down the VJ route. I know many people do this and some of them do it very well, but simply hooking up a camera to a screen and, manipulated or not, projecting the photos to the audience strikes me as missing a fundamental point. What that point is, I’m not sure. But I can kinda feel it out there, somewhere.

In trying to understand this sort of thing I find it helps to unpack photography as a process. As I tell my beginners photography classes, photography is the process of controlling and manipulating light as it enters a box containing a light sensitive receptor. In digital photography the receptor converts the light into digital data, 1s and 0s, which are displayed as colour pixels on a screen. And in all cameras the light is controlled and manipulated by lenses, hole sizes and shutter speeds. To take a photo, then, is to catch light in a controlled way and turn it into electricity. Just as to play guitar is to create vibrations and turn them into electricity.

Now that’s interesting. Of course, the optical-acoustic instrument is nothing new. If you’ve known me for a while you’ll know of my fleeting fascination with the Thingamagoop, also known as an Optical Theremin (which I’m sure pisses off the theremin purists). These work using simple Photoresistors to increase or reduce the pitch depending on the amount of light hitting them. Lots of light = high pitch, less light = low pitch. In other words, you can make music by shining lights at a light sensitive sensor.

You can also make photographs by shining lights at a light sensitive sensor.

Long exposure photos are interesting because we normally take photos at speeds faster than a second. Without a tripod, 1/30sec is the slowest you can get away with before your shaking hands affect the image so we don’t often see photos that capture light for longer than that. Even movies and TV which purport to represent long periods of time are essentially just stacks of very short exposures run in sequence. A film runs through time alongside you. It doesn’t show you more of less than you’re able to experience. A photograph captures a moment, the length of which can be a tiny fraction of a second or a lifetime.

As should be very clear by now, I don’t really have a clue what Performance Photography might look like. But I’m sure of the following.

  • It involves a camera, being a box with a hole and the ability to record light.
  • It involves the production of an image through the manipulation of the camera.
  • It involved the image being viewed by an audience immediately, or very soon after, it is produced.

Everything else, from the mechanics of the camera to the source of the light to the transduction of the light data to the rendering of the image is up for grabs.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this has been done in many forms before. Indeed, you could say a live TV broadcast fits my criteria, and of course it does. But so do many other things. I intend to explore some of them.

Here’s one that’s just come to me. It’s a 5 minute idea so don’t expect miracles.

The photoresistor in your average optical-acoustic synth is pretty crude. It measures the intensity of the light and changes the amount of electricity it will allow to flow through it. How about creating a massive camera sensor and enclosing it in a massive box, say a shipping container fashioned into a camera obscura. Each photoresistors is connected to an LED on a big board and as they register light they increase or decrease the brightness of their respective LEDs to create a picture.

That might count as a performance. Or it might just be an installation.

More thinking needed.

Thanks must go to MortonUnderwood’s If Wet, which I attended before writing this, in particular their guest Sarah Angliss whose thoughts about the performative and theatrical aspects of her music really helped me focus on this subject for myself. If you need some mental stimulation I can highly recommend a monthly trip to If Wet.

The Act of Photography

July 19th 2013

One of the things I’m particularly interested in exploring, and have been pondering for the last year or so, is the actual act of taking a photo, as distinct from the photographic end product. There’s something about that process of looking, composing and capturing that seems to tap into something fundamental, though I don’t at this stage know what it is. I’m hoping that through developing these walks over the next few months, which are all about people experience that act in different ways, I can come to some better understanding of it.

This post is therefore a bit of a sketch of some ideas of mine framed by a few things I’ve read (saved on my Tumblr).

To give me a sense of where the wider conversation about photography is at, I’ve been subscribed to the RSS feed for Medium’s Click The Shutter collection of short posts about photography for the last few months. Most of it is lightweight but the occasional gem pops through and here are a couple that caught my eye for complimentary but very different reasons.

This Is You On Smiles refers in its title to the classic anti-drugs commercial This is your brain on drugs, so you know immediately where author Dave Pell is coming from. That our modern obsession with photographing and videoing every important event in our lives is somehow destroying the memory of them. Usually I reject this line of thinking but there is a valid point in there. When you bring a recording device into an experience you change it in some quite fundamental ways beyond the obvious awareness of the lens or microphone. The act of mediating your experience through a machine is not to be underestimated.

Where I disagree is that this is necessarily a bad thing. Our experiences are constantly mediated and manipulated by external and internal processes. Noise pollution can make an otherwise beautiful sunset an upsetting moment, or a bad mood from an argument can adversely effect other unconnected experiences. And yes, feeling the need to photograph something for posterity can diminish the experience of the thing itself. But it can also add to it.

I confess I wish I’d written Alex Furman’s The Practice Of Photography, also on Medium, because it perfectly captures why I do Photo School, but let’s unpack the conclusion for the purposes of this subject.

There’s one thing that practicing photography does to you that is immensely valuable and often overlooked. It forces you to see the world around you in a completely different way. It teaches you to find beauty and impact and symbolism in places that most people wouldn’t grace with a second look. Photography teaches you to pay attention and to appreciate. It’s about seeing much more than it is about capturing what you see. […] Practicing photography in a mindful way makes the world around you more visually stimulating and your experiences richer.

Taking photos in a “mindful way” is the key here. I think the critics of mass photography are assuming all this snapping that’s going on is mindless and that strikes me as a big and brutal assumption. Sure, a lot of people’s photography is technically and aesthetically awful. Lots of people don’t have that compositional eye - just as many are tone deaf. But to imply it’s mindless, that no thought has gone into it, that it isn’t enabling a different way of seeing and experiencing the world, seems odd.

I’m going to make my own assumption now, so feel free to discard it, as I may well do in the future. The rejection of mass photography come from a desire to return to a time when photography was an elitist pursuit. Derogatory terms like “snapshots” and the fetishisation of expensive equipment helps establish this. People using cheap, disposable cameras believe they are incapable of taking amazing photos because they don’t have the right equipment, despite some of the best photos in history being taken with compacts.

It seems to be a given by the “professional” and “artistic” photography crowd that only they are able to be mindful in their photography practice, which helpfully distinguishes they from the masses who threaten their hallowed position. For if some civilian with a cameraphone can produce images of great value, where does that leave them?

Needless to say I have very little sympathy with that straw-man I just constructed. The ubiquity of cameras is exciting, not because of the flood of images, but because it gives everyone the ability to practice photography mindfully, regardless of their background.

Before I move on, James Shakespeare’s Stop Externalising Your Life is another rant against photographic ubiquity, concentrating on the the sharing of experiences online. It’s a seductive argument but I don’t think it’s useful. A couple of examples:

I don’t think that it’s inherently wrong to want to keep the world updated about what you’re doing. But when you go through life robotically posting about everything you do, you’re not a human being.

Who actually does this? Do you know anyone who posts about everything they do all day every day? Outside a few hyperactive teenagers, who will soon grow out of it, no-one behaves remotely in this way. It’s utterly implausible.

You are not enriching your experiences by sharing them online; you’re detracting from them because all your efforts are focussed on making them look attractive to other people.

This is audacious beyond words. He’s assuming that by engaging with an experience and turning it into a sharable piece of media, the experience is irrefutable reduced in impact. There’s no room for the notion that this engagement with the subject with a tool might result in a deeper understanding of or relationship with it.

It also betrays a massive lack of self-confidence. How is presenting the moment in a way which others might enjoy a submissive, reductive act? The language of social media might revolve around “likes” but that doesn’t automatically relate to pat-on-the-head praise.

It’s a very annoying point of view.

Returning to the actual act of taking photographs…

The Constant Moment is a term that has gathered a bit of steam of late, coined by Clayton Cubitt back in May. The basic premise is one that is core to my thinking about photography as a mechanically mediated artform. Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment “is not about the art, but mainly about the tools that he had access to”. A portable compact camera allowed him to be discrete while the limitation of a roll of film meant he had to decide which fraction of second to capture.

Cubitt’s argument is the technology has changed and we no longer need to worry about which moment is the decisive one. They’re all available to us.

Imagine an always-recording 360 degree HD wearable networked video camera. Google Glass is merely an ungainly first step towards this. With a constant feed of all that she might see, the photographer is freed from instant reaction to the Decisive Moment, and then only faced with the Decisive Area to be in, and perhaps the Decisive Angle with which to view it. Already we’ve arrived at the Continuous Moment, but only an early, primitive version.

There’s a lot more in the article and I recommend reading it in full, but the main question that hovers over this for me is “what about composition?”

The easy version of this is the person at a gig who points their camera at the band and fills their card with 500 photos. None of them are composed - the hope is at least a few will be worth saving. The work is then done back at the computer, trawling through the gigabytes of awful blurry shots for a few passable ones. I used to shoot like this. I don’t anymore.

I learned how to shoot at gigs by going the Supersonic music festival in 2006 with a fully manual camera and four rolls of film. I budgeted I had three shots per band, so I had to find those decisive moments. I would first watch the band play, get a sense of their music and how they moved with it. If I was looking to photography a guitarist I’d understand his behaviour, see how he moved when different sections of the song kicked in. I’d get to the stage where I was comfortable in predicting their actions and then, after a few trial runs, I’d take my shot. Nine times out of ten it worked.

This harks back to Alex Furman’s “mindful photography” in that I was probably one of the most engaged members of the audience there. If I’d set up an array of 100 networked iPhone cameras across the venue and then trawled through the footage for that same shot, would that an equivalent quality of experience?

And what’s with the obsession in capturing all the moments? Surely that’s impossible, for a start, regardless of the tech, unless we’re talking about recording both the quality of light and the reflective properties of the material in that environment so it can be recreated later. That certainly comes under my broad definition of photography - capturing light information and creating images with it - but it the actual act of doing so seems irrelevant.

Maybe that’s the point - that the act of photography is no longer needed to create photographs. We merely scour the data-banks for pre-caputured light and manipulate it. This is effectively what an artist like Mishka Henner is doing with his Google Street View and Google Earth works. It is photography, no question of that, and the act of finding those scenes and screen-grabbing them does have value. To complain that an image created mediated through the Internet is of less value that one created in the “real world” would be elitist and wrong, I feel. The work that is created through trawling the Constant Moment should stand or fall on its own merits.

But I’m not really interested in the images. I’m interested in the act. I want to take people on a walk and have them engage with their surroundings using their image-making machines. Whether they produce photos of any critical worth is surprisingly secondary. It’s all about the moment.

Like I said, I’m not convinced my arguments aren’t bundled up in my own elitist prejudices about what photography “is”. I’ll keep prodding them over the next few months.

See also: Kottke musing on Constant Photography.

Notes from If Wet 4

July 22nd 2013

If Wet, an afternoon of sonic exploration in a village hall in darkest Worcestershire, has quickly become my essential event of the month. I’m not a sonic artist and sometimes struggle to follow the technical things under discussion (I had to google “transducer” the first month) but it’s proven to be the most inspirational and fundamentally useful art-thing ever.

Mostly this is because it’s based around peer sharing. Sam Underwood and David Morton are musicians / instrument builders / sound artists and curate If Wet in an effort to build a community of interest. They invite specific guests but rather than just perform they explain and discuss their work. As such it has more a feel of a seminar, but still has the casual and open-to-all vibe of a gig.

Ostensibly I go there to take photos, and have built up a nice collection, but my real motivation is to learn from people way outside my field. I’m mostly a photographer who works with light. These are mostly musicians who work with sound. Where their work with sound potentially overlaps with my work with light is where is gets interesting to me because it frees me from the often stifling definitions of “photography”. Last month Sarah Anglis was got me thinking about performance. This month Laura Kriefman, along with Sam and David themselvs, for me thinking about composition and movement.

Here’s some notes. I’m not expecting to them to be coherent. That can come later.

Sam and David talked about augmenting existing soundscapes by taking composed music into those soundscapes, playing it and and recording the combined results. Composed music brings order and composition to the audio environment, rearranging the relative importance of ambient elements. I started thinking about augmenting visual landscapes with composed images. How might that work? But images are the end result. The analogous thing to sound is light. As a musician composes sound let’s think about composing light. You can’t control the ambient light, you have to work with it. How about bringing “composed light” using studio lights into a naturally changing light-scape? Is that at all interesting or actually quite dull?

Following a different tack, maybe it’s less about composing the light but about composing the act of composition. By leading people in certain ways, through different routes or emotions, to the same subject, can the composition be guided? Guiding the eye.

Laura’s talk and performance was very wide ranging and I need to investigate her work much more deeply but one big idea came out of listening to her, building on the ideas seeded by Sam and David. She’s a choreographer who’s been working with sound and was riffing off how human movement can create soundscapes though interactions with technology. (Roughly summarised!) I liked this idea as the photographer, especially in the street, is always constrained by the limitations of human movement. We can only get so high or so low, so close or so far. We have to make do with a lot of spatial restrictions and work with those, often to the benefit of our work.

Could the photographer be given rules of movement, maybe like a chess piece, to force them into positions they wouldn’t have gone into. Photographic Twister maybe? Applying this to a walk is also interesting, though less photographically specific. I was reminded of something I’d seen on Nikki Pugh’s site years ago called Invigilator. This involved recording a journey in terms of left and right turns in one place and then following those directions in a completely different place. It ties in with some of the psychogeographic tricks like writing blindly writing your name on a map and following the path of the letters. I’m not sure if it’s relevant to the photo walk but it feels interesting if I can find the hook.

That’s all that was explicitly in my notes. The rest was gentle layering of ideas upon other ideas and notions. I’ll be back next month and I highly recommend you come too.

Notes on Psychogeography - Pocket Essentials

July 30th 2013

Psychogeography is one of “those” terms, seemingly useful and exciting but upon inspection vague and frustrating. (The Wikipedia article for it at the moment is delightfully nonsensical.) But while I’ve never got further than a chapter through an Iain Sinclair book it’s always been hovering on the sidelines of my ponderings of the nature of Birmingham. I had an inkling it was a relatively simple thing, wrapped up in the obsfucations of literary theory and French philosophy, and like most artistic pursuits was just a refined version of something people do all the time without realising it - building an understanding of place through their psychological and social experiences in that place.

A while back I was thinking about nostalgia and the fact that places inevitably change over time. To be “from” a place means accompanying that place as it changes and changing with it in a symbiotic way. To feel nostalgia for a place is to have parted with it and not been involved with recent changes. The sense that “it used to be better” is really “this has less to do with me”. This psychological symbiotic relationship with the evolution of a place is pretty much the foundation of my personal understanding of psychogeography.

Still, I thought it would be useful to see what the more accepted definition of the term was so rather than plough through the impenetrable source texts I went for the cheat sheet, Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography Pocket Essentials. I wasn’t wanting deep analysis, just a quick survey of the key people and key ideas. It did the job. Here are some of the passages I highlighted and my thoughts about them.

Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track was originally published in 1925 but it was not until its rediscovery in the 1970s that the theory of ley lines was to become a cornerstone of the new age ‘Earth Mysteries’ school that has since provided an esoteric counterbalance to the stern revolutionary proclamations of the Situationists.

I’d never considered ley lines as a way of navigating, mostly because of the connotations with tedious new age bunkum, but as a methodology for remapping an area they’re actually quite interesting. What modern lay lines could we construct across the city? What land marks could we connect, a la Iain Sinclair’s Hawksmoor churches?

Paris in the nineteenth century had expanded to the point where it could no longer be comprehended in its entirety. It had become increasingly alien to its own inhabitants, a strange and newly exotic place to be experienced more as a tourist than as a resident.

This resonated with me hard. My big schtick about people talking about “Birmingham” is it’s too big to fit into any coherent definition. I want to know which “Birmingham” they’re talking about. The delusion that you know your city, and the delight in discovering you don’t, is a rich seem to be explored.

The verb flâner has been defined as Errer sans bout, en s’arrêtant pour regarder which translates as ‘wandering without aim, stopping once in a while to look around’.

Always handy to have a definition to hand.

“The production of psychogeographical maps, or even the introduction of alterations such as more or less arbitrarily transposing maps of two different regions, can contribute to clarifying certain wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences…”

That’s Debord, and it’s the notion that subordination to randomness is not ideal that I find interesting. There needs to be an order, a route, but that order should not be affected by habit.

Indeed, Ballard is dismissive of London precisely because of the weight of its historical heritage, commenting: “I regard the city as a semi-extinct form. London is basically a nineteenth-century city. And the habits of mind appropriate to the nineteenth century, which survive into the novels set in the London of the twentieth century, aren’t really appropriate to understanding what is really going on in life today. I think the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on. In the suburbs you find uncentred lives… So that people have more freedom to explore their own imaginations, their own obsessions.”

In the last year I’ve had this hunch that Birmingham is a suburban city. It doesn’t have the weight of history because every generation wipes out the previous generation’s history. The Victorians wiped out the Georgians, the Brutalists wiped out the Victorians, and the current era are demolishing the concrete. Not only that, but the centre of Birmingham, compared with other cities, has no gravity. The activity does not fall into the centre but spreads out to the suburbs where anything is possible.

[Iain] Sinclair, however, is no flâneur, for he is aware of the necessary transformation this figure has undergone in order to face the challenge of the modern city. “The concept of ‘strolling’, aimless urban wandering, the flâneur, had been superseded. We had moved into the age of the stalker; journeys made with intent – sharp-eyed and unsponsored. The stalker was our role-model: purposed hiking, not dawdling, nor browsing. […] This was walking with a thesis. With a prey… The stalker is a stroller who sweats, a stroller who knows where he is going, but not why or how.”

Noted for the last sentence. Where, but not why or how.

Stewart Home’s book The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, cited as an out-of-date but of-interest survey, is available on his website in full.

This was the first book I’ve read for this project and the first book I’d make notes from in over a decade. I’m not sure exactly how useful the note-taking was, but I am a little rusty so I’m probably doing it wrong. The main thing is I have a better sense of what Psychogeography is and a few ideas of how to use it to make the photo walks more about the participants than about me leading and them following.

I’m talking to a Digbeth-based artist about running a Psychogeography Workshop Day at some point in August. It won’t be focussed on photography, though obviously that will be my personal angle of attack, and should be of interest to anyone who wants to give this a go. Watch this space.

Notes on The London Perambulator

August 24th 2013

The London Perambulator is a 45 minute documentary about Nick Papadimitriou featuring Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Russell Brand. If Sinclair and Self are refined interpetations of the eccentric urban walker, Papadimitriou is the real deal. It’s an excellent documentary well worth your time if you have the slightest interest in psychogeography (and its confusions), urban exploration and place. Which, of course, I currently am. It’s on YouTube in full.

Having watched it late last night (on Pier Review’s recommendation) I sat down again with my finger on the pause button and transcribed some bits that felt key to my current research. I present them here without commentary for now. (Linked #’s take you to that point in the film).

Iain Sinclair: # Psychogeography had an authentic status in the 1960s when it was connected to Situationalism and to a way of aggressively dealing with a city, and then it drifted off into a kind of no mans land until Stewart Home rescued it with his London Psychogeographical Association in which the thing was activated again into present concerns and had a comedy aspect to it as well. And then it really got into the popular mind as a way of describing almost anything to do with cities, any activity or anything to do with walking became Psychogeography, and Nick clearly challenged this terminology and brought in Deep Topography which makes it seem more like that very British tradition of the naturalist, the walker at the edges of the city, the liminal figure who does all of that and who is not so conceptual in his practice. And I thought this is therefore a very useful term, and I’d like to use it myself.

Nick Papadimitriou: # It’s about getting a very very dangerous balance between finding the overlooked and showing it to the other people who have an eye for the overlooked, and not making the overlooked into something that is gazed at, like people looking through the bars of a monkey house while some baboon plays with his penis or picks his arse. Which is probably a good description of what me and Sinclair do anyway.

Russell Brand: # It’s amazing how your memories come alive when you encounter a place you’ve not been for a long while. … # It’s as if the memories had been left there, as if it were an object rather than something that had been carried in my mind. So it’s interesting in a Jungian sense as if there is a common consciousness or unconsciousness or superconsciousness around that we can access and that there’s somehow a relationship between that and the physical world and topography and geography.

Will Self: # …escape the machine-man matrix that dominates the perception of place…

Nick Papadimitriou: # If you look over here you can really see the shape of the substantial gully forming. In fact we’re looking across a mini river valley towards the far side. When I first noticed that I was absolutely astonished. I felt as if I was time travelling, looking back into the pre-WW1 era. I could suddenly see the rural shape of the land, something that’s just screened out by modern sensibility. A very powerful experience. A kind of portal or window through to other possibilities embedded in the landscape.

Will Self: #. [The places that Nick reveres] are places that feel left behind by the passage of history, the oxbow lakes of urbanity.

Iain Sinclair: # The edgeland is unofficial, it’s between permitted territories, it’s a diminishing resource.

Nick Papadimitriou: # Places steeped in their own time system.

Will Self: # Very interested in the Interzone, liminal places that existed, particularly the border between the urban and the rural, or Rus In Urbe or Urbe In Rus, in a way those three states are all aspects of each other.

Nick Papadimitriou: # The interactive zone between manmade and nature.

Nick Papadimitriou: # I felt as if I’d claimed something for myself that was away from the world that I felt had rejected me. A lot of it was probably just stuff in my head, it wasn’t anything coherent that was happening in the outside world, but within the context of my psychology and how I was seeing the world at the time, it was really important for me to come to places like this. I felt as if I was gaining power over something that had been… I felt as if I had been roughy handled by something that was bigger and more powerful than me, and that by coming here I was aligning myself with something that was prior to and larger than than the thing that had rejected me, as if I’d found a more powerful ally in my struggle.

Iain Sinclair: # Ease of passage across the city is ever more denied so that the walker become like a guerilla he has to duck and dive even to negotiate a passage across the city. [Nick would] have to keep walking to get to somewhere where he’s allowed to walk, and then walk becomes a form of practice, becomes a form of breathing, memory, touching the ground, it’s the way that narative presents itself. I don’t think any other form engenders narative in quite the same way. If you’re in a car you’re in a pod, in a kind of dream, sealed off, it’s a revery. If you’re on a bicycle you’ve got to be so conscious of the traffic surrounding you just to survive that there’s no time to get into this stream of natural consciousness which is walking. And therefore walking becomes the most natural form for lifting your consciousness. All of th real spirits of the city are doing it all the time.

Nick Papadimitriou: # I know when I walk I seem to access all sorts of levels of processes taking place under hedges or memories of people who I’ve never known, memories that aren’t mine, yet they seem so tangible. Everywhere there’s a sense of loss.

Nick Papadimitriou: # Perhaps pick up on other people’s narratives bound up in the landscape in some sort of way.

Will Self: # [airport walks] What intrigues me is very few people in contemporary society have a continuous physical knowledge of moving from the urban to the rural, that everybody leaps over that whether it’s by car or public transport.

Russell Brand: # What must that space feel like when you experience it in meticulous detail step by step, because it just passes in a blur in a car.

Great WS rant at #

Russell Brand: # The way that we’ve organised our civilisation, we’re so detatched and removed now that everything’s been lacquered in concrete and you’re protected from it, you can’t have an organic, visceral experience with your land, with the place that you’re from.

Nick Papadimitriou: # My ambition is to hold my region in my mind, so that I am the region.

Nick Papadimitriou: # I find suburbia eerie, very beautiful. I find it a painful place. So many people have lived their lives here, their sheds have rotted, their cats have died, the car’s rusted, cans of paint have dried out, the wife’s grown a beard, and then it’s all gone, someone else moves in. Rich pickings for the deep topographer. At the same time it’s just a transitional thing. It depends on the timescale you’re looking at it with, it’s either a huge storage vat of regional memory or else it’s just a momentary film, a suggestion of a possibility that could be replaced by other possibilities in due course.

See also this surprisingly excellent Newsnight piece on Nick, and his book Scarp.

Notes from If Wet 5

August 27th 2013

If Wet 5 occurred on Sunday with presentation/performances by Nikki Pugh (who I’ve known for years) and Kathy Hinde (who I hadn’t met before). I was taking photos again (it’s one of the few times I get to be a “trad” event photographer at the moment so I make the most of it) but, as ever, it was a big brain-jolt and notes were taken.

The main concept I had was for the harmonic optical theremin. Building on my camera-obscura-pinscreen-sculpture idea I wanted to think about a camera that produces sound. Usually this is done with a photoresistor which informs the pitch of a soundwave, often called an optical theremin. That’s not really a camera though, as a camera doesn’t just measure light - it creates an image from the light. So, what if, inside the camera obscura, each photoresistor in the array (each pixel, if you like) triggered a different soundwave with the pitches for each shade of grey being in harmony. Images captured by the camera would produce different chords. A live video feed, or movie, would play a tune. A prototype of this shouldn’t be too hard to do using Processing or similar.

Another idea, possibly tying in with the “performance photography” musing, is a camera that “explodes” with light, sound, movement, etc when the shutter is opened. This would be technically similar to the above but the reactive object would be the camera itself. The camera “reads” the subject and reacts accordingly. I see it having party streamers.

There was talk of “scores” on Sunday, particularly the odd graphic ones that experimental composers use, and I found myself wondering what a score for cameras might look like. Would it be very prescriptive (“walk 20 paces, look NNE at 45 degrees from horizontal and take photo with wide aperture and +2 exposure compensation”) or more vague? Could this be a way of making the photographic treasure hunt less cliched and tedious?

This notion of scores for photographers took me to the idea of group producing photos as a unit, each with own camera but the resulting images are combined into a “piece”, like the sounds of an orchestra or band. What was interesting about this was that the photographers would have to work together and follow a “beat”. The might have to be a conductor. If the score takes us through time the photos can be played back using timestamps.

Other thoughts:

GPS plays a big part in Nikki’s work. Many cameras, particularly those on phones, have GPS built in. Could the GPS inform the workings on the camera in some way? Probably easiest to do this as a smartphone app.

Feedback loops are used in music to create drones. What would a feedback look for a photo look like? A double exposure? Something like this?

Photography as a magical act of creative involvement

August 27th 2013

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the “act” of photography - the process by which a person finds, approaches, composes and photographs their subject. In many ways I’m less interested about the resulting photo - it could be argued the photograph as object is so ubiquitous as to not be interesting anymore - just the act of taking it.

A lot of this came out of disliking the way “Photographers” were dismissing Instagram and photos on Facebook, or the way people who took photos at gigs with their phones would be sneered at, both by photographers who knew the photos would be terrible and by gig purists who felt they weren’t experiencing the performance properly.

I do think most of the photos people share online are rubbish. And I do think those who take crappy photos at gigs are doing something wrong. But I don’t think the motivation for doing so is worth dismissing so quickly.

I’ve done a fair amount of gig and event photography. I found it a really useful learning experience, shooting moving subjects in dark rooms with flashing spotlights. If forces you to take control of the camera, get into Manual mode and work within some pretty harsh constraints. But it also taught me something else - how to engage with the subject through the camera. As I wrote in July:

I learned how to shoot at gigs by going the Supersonic music festival in 2006 with a fully manual camera and four rolls of film. I budgeted I had three shots per band, so I had to find those decisive moments. I would first watch the band play, get a sense of their music and how they moved with it. If I was looking to photography a guitarist I’d understand his behaviour, see how he moved when different sections of the song kicked in. I’d get to the stage where I was comfortable in predicting their actions and then, after a few trial runs, I’d take my shot. Nine times out of ten it worked.

It’s often interested me how similar this is to hunting, both in terms of stalking the prey though the eyepiece and then taking the “shot”. I’ve never been interested in hunting but as a photographer I think I can begin to understand the intense connection that must develop between a hunter and his target. Maybe connection is the wrong word, but the hunter builds an understanding of how that creature moves, what its personality is, that must be established in order to make the kill. The same applies to a photography. We must build a relationship with our subject, and understanding of it, be it a brick wall or a professional model. There’s a joke that a good wedding photographer doesn’t need to be technically proficient or have a good eye - they just have to be good with people. In other words they are good at quickly and efficiently building relationships with their subjects. That understanding can raise an otherwise mediocre photo to new heights.

So, can this help us see what’s happening when an untrained, naive photographer points their light-recording device at a subject? Here’s what I think is going on. (Warning - much projection and little empirical evidence follows)

People don’t just take photos of anything. I’ve often had strange looks or confused questions from members of the public who’ve spotted me photographing a rusty nail or interestingly broken brick. The question “why are you photographing that?” doesn’t just betray a lack of imagination - I think it’s a genuine inquiry as to what kind of relationship I hope to develop with that rusty nail. And to what purpose. Because when they take a photo they do so because the subject matters to them on an intimate level - babies, holidays, parties, etc.

I don’t know if this is an instinctive thing or something we’ve been conditioned into doing, but it seems to be a very important part of why people take photos. But this equation can be rearranged. If a person takes a photo of something because have a relationship with it, then taking a photo of something you don’t have a relationship with can create that relationship.

This, I think, is why you see the waves of flashguns popping in stadiums. It can’t be about getting a good image, impossible when you use a flash in those circumstances. It comes from a desire to connect with that event on a personal, emotional level.

There’s also something going on on a creative level. Creativity is often lauded but I think the effects on the creator are pretty unexamined. To create something, be it a painting, a table or a baby, is a pretty powerful thing that raises us up as humans. Creating a photograph might be absurdly easy now and visual imagery might be ubiquitous to the point of tedium, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce the impact of what informs that act of creation - the discovery, the approach, the composition, the moment of exposure.

When we take a photo of something important to us we’re trying to take a great photo, obviously, but I think subconsciously there’s this desire to engage with the subject matter by creating something out of it. Something is happening and we want to be involved. We can cheer, we can shake hands, we can smile, we can create. To make art about something in the world is to involve yourself with it. To take a photo of something is to do the same.

This afternoon I was chatting with Fiona about blogging and why people write the things we do. Some friends have gone travelling and Fi was wondering how long they’d keep up their quite detailed blog posts before the acclimatised and didn’t need to write them anymore. Right now everything is new and strange and documenting it helps make sense of it all. This idea of processing-by-writing is something I do a lot of. By turing my ideas into an essay or narrative I process them into something coherent. I compose my thoughts. I frame my ideas. I bring things into focus. You can see where I’m going with this.

As I write I’m aware that my focus is narrow and I’m missing multitudes, but I’m happy to keep ploughing for now to see where it takes me. This moment of photography feels important.

I went to Ars Electronica 2013 and here’s what I found

October 4th 2013

I went to Ars Electronica at the beginning of the September. My mentor, Karen, had said it was essential I went as part of my development, implying I would have my horizons expanded and mind blown by the stuff on show there. Personally I wasn’t sure about going - I didn’t feel like I needed to have more ideas poured into my head - what I needed was some space to process the ones I already had. Ars felt like something I should do next year. But Karen was firm. Off I went.

The four days I spent soaking in Ars Electronica were nothing like I’d anticipated. It wasn’t bad and it was certainly worth going, but I’d seen more cutting edge digital art idly scrolling through a few Tumblrs than I saw there. The festival, if it had once had relevance, felt like it had been taken over by the dead hand of education with an emphasis on students who, by their very nature, are not at the height of their careers. A couple of exhibitions from Taiwan and Israel had a bit of bite but they felt detached from the broader festival.

I suppose the overriding message I got is there’s nothing inherently interesting about “electronic arts” in the 2010s. Nearly all art has an electronic facet and there’s enough history that it can get bogged down in it, such as the nostagia-porn vintage computer game exhibit which, when I moaned about it, chum Leon said was like seeing the Mona Lisa in the flesh as opposed to as a print. Yeah, whatever, it’s still tedious retro and I get enough of that at home.

I did like the uninentional art of the Ars catalogue sale with mountains of old catalogues from the last couple of decades being sold dirt cheap. This monument to the transience and irrelevance of speculating about digital art made me smile. If ever there was a medium that was agressively forward looking it’s the “digital”. A huge pile of questions, to which hindsight could mostly answer “no”. A firesale of futurism.

Maybe that explains the slightly conservative edge to the official Ars theme for this year. Total Recall, besides evoking Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger fantasies, addressed the panic how the hell we cope with all this stuff the digital world is throwing at us. Fears about the storage and fate of our digital “memories” is valid, but the answers are pretty complex. The artworks I saw that attempted it didn’t seem interested in addressing these questions in any real depth, merely framing them in ways that the viewer’s lizard brain would answer like a paranoid tabloid. Bio-terrorists will run amok! Hyper-surveilance marks the end of privacy! A theme I noticed through Total Recall was “Just because we can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea”. Not only is this a boring and deeply conservative statement, it confuses two quite distinct issues and allows easy emotional responses (while perfectly valid) to override the more intellectually tricky enquiries into how this stuff actually works.

Maybe in a secular worldview it is the job of Art to keep Science in check? To ask the moral questions religion would have considered its remit in the past? If so, I think Art needs to fully understand the science before it can preach ethics, lest we arrive at a Galileo scenario again.

In their defence, the Ars Electronica organisation does exist to bring artists and scientists together to pose these questions and maybe I missed the nuances, or the subsequent debates. But on surface and as a spectacle the Total Recall theme felt defensive, closing ranks against the frightening, complex future. Not what I was hoping for.

Of course, in any gathering of stuff this large there were bound to be things that hit my buttons. Even those which were derivative of ideas I’d seen elsewhere were interesting to see first hand. Oliver Bimber’s DIY light-field camera, built from an array of consumer webcams and viewed on a big telly using 3D specs, was neat. The Lytro, as a device, has always felt like a miss-step around a very interesting concept that could show the way cameras might develop, so it was good to see it broken down to some of the constituent parts and opened up for experimenting. The conversation I had with the volunteer manning it was illuminating but I need to research more into how the images are computed.

As always, the really important stuff is happening in the mysterious box, in the code. Obscuring this and just showing the outcomes was a flaw I saw again and again at Ars, and I suspect goes across all “electronic art”. I’m not saying show the code itself - that’s meaningless to most viewers - but explain the workings, show the flow of data and the decisions made. That’s not hard to do, or at least shouldn’t be for a professional communicator. But no, Art-speak all the way.

Given I’ve been rather obsessed with slit-scan photography I was quite pleased to see some on display in a corner of the exhibition, but it was pretty basic stuff, probably made with the lo-fi app I’ve been playing with. Jaak Kaevats had made four long scans of people walking along the street accompanied by a pointless “interactive” screen for zooming in. While disapointing it did fire me up to do better, and I suppose that was the theme of my Ars Electronica - realising this stuff could be done better and I could do it. Quite inspiring in itself really.

Another thing I noticed was how a curatorial or artistic vision, if that’s the term, can, by trying to layer meaning on a work, spoil the work itself. Here’s something I wrote in the Ars cafe:

A large number of the exhibits at Ars have disappointed me, not in and of themselves - they are often well considered and executed within their remit - but related to my expectations. Kurt Hรถrbst’s people_scans (alarm bell from the unnecessary underscore in the title) is a good example. The title, underscore aside, implies a scan of some kind. While “scan” is a broad term, I’d assume it to be something more than a photograph, otherwise you’d call it a photograph, no? But his work is effectively a composite photograph of a person. Yes, the images are gorgeous and display incredible detail. But they are photos. Was I naive to expect something more? Some study of depth or time or something more than a photograph? His work is “an intentional deceleration of high-speed photography” but I couldn’t see how. The camera was a standard high-spec SLR, the environment very similar to a standard photographic studio. What he’d done was spin the studio around, macro instead of longlens, and using this track to keep the camera on a horizontal plane. As an exercise in perfection it’s really interesting, and it’s great to see an artist using a spirit level. But there was nothing slow about it. It’s just a composite photograph, no different to a stitched panorama of a landscape. “People Panoramas” would be a neat and accurate title for this. But it’s not a scan.

Does that matter? Shouldn’t the work be allowed to stand alone from the curator-speak? Can the artist be blamed for the naming of their work? No, and Kurt Hรถrbst’s work in and of itself is fine. I like the images. They have a flatness which is intriguing. I like how the folds in the clothes are disconcerting. They are great photos. But as part of what I was expecting Ars Electronica to be about they’re a bit of a letdown.

Later, when looking into Hรถrbst’s work in more detail, I saw the curator-speak was his own, so the artist can be blamed. Although you could argue he wouldn’t have gotten the commission without it. Artists gotta eat.

The exhibition that impressed me the most was IL(L) Machine a collection of Israeli art students which I only found because I went on the official tour (thinking that my initial impressions of Ars could be improved with a bit of context - they could, but only a bit). Two pieces stood out to me. Here’s the notes I tapped on the sofa there:

Cubes: Boxes with simple circuits that react to inputs - touch, shade, noise, wind, etc. Essentially the Arduino starter kit turned into an exploratory plaything. Idea: use these boxes to control cameras. I like the non-obvious ones like blowing through a hole to trigger a sound. Also, measuring distance using IR could create a Theramin camera?

C.T. Sound TVL-Linz: This is a nice installation. The curator-speak is annoying but the end result appeals to me. Yes, I’m drawn to the pixels station and the tenori-on style sequencing, but there’s something else there. I think it’a the “playing” of an image and seeing what the sounds of that image evoke. It’s a transcode, or transmediation, seeing what is lost and found in that process. Does a sad image play a happy tune?

Another piece that stuck with me were a wooden cabinet of glassware and crockery which was vibrated by rumblings and explosions through the wall, shaking the contents until they gradually fell off and smashed. As an allegory of Jewish immigrants (the cabinet and contents were very old-world) trading war zones for war zones it hit all the right buttons and wasn’t too obvious. I also liked a forest of small loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling which played back street sounds from Tel Aviv. It didn’t quite reach the full potential but the basic idea, of creating an immersive soundscape with cheap consumer tech, was interesting.

I revisited the Israelis a few times and enjoyed each visit. I don’t know if art improves when it comes from a place of strife - that feels too easy - but there was a certain bite and urge there that the Western Europeans lacked, and where the artworks were simple it felt from necessity rather than naivety. I also liked the way Ars had put this exhibition in a building commissioned by Hitler himself before the war, acknowledging that Linz was his favourite city. There was still a disconcertingly proud 1936 relief in the corridor, which just emphasised this niggling sense that Austria never really learned the true lesson on WWII (something I didn’t want to dwell on because I was here to judge Ars, not Austria, and the UK can’t stand proud on this stuff) so giving this building to Israeli Jews was at the very least interesting and possibly rather bold.

By the end of the festival I was starting to wonder about photography and digital imaging. Given the ubiquity of the camera and the drenching of society in photographed imagery it seemed odd that Ars seemed to have a blind spot here. Sure, there were a few works that used cameras but they tended to either fetishise the process (Hรถrbst’s “scans”) or have a process that felt 10 year out of date. A crude camera played tunes according to whether areas of the image were black or white, which was neat but very simple. No cameras take photos like that anymore, not even cheap CCTV. It had no relevance to today and even the set up - old b/w CRT screens on bare metal shelves - had the feel of a 1980’s surveillance room.

Where photography (and I include movies in this) was being used was as documentary, to show something, rather than as a medium in itself. But even here things I’s assume would be accepted were seen as novelties to be given lip-service to. With Flickr at 10 years old you’d hope an Electronic Arts festival would have figured out how to interact with photos and video online, but the closest I saw to embracing this was giving GoPro cameras out to visitors to record the festival in an unmediated way, displayed on screens in the Geodome in the main square.

It’s a nice project but it felt a little dated and unfocussed. What is the purpose other than to maybe make a statement about documentary bias? What is the value of these videos? I hope the project doesn’t end with the festival and folk are able to pick through the footage and create new narratives and documents, but I fear it’ll just be stored away, ticking the engagement box. It feels like a marketing gimmick, not an artwork. And there’s nothing wrong with marketing gimmicks, I hasten to add. Just don’t pretend they’re art.

Along with the “use you smartphone app to join the performance” stuff for the obligatory big spectacular show there was a real sense of top-down engagement. The great thing about “social media” in the pure sense is each person is self-directed. They’re following their own script, creating their own personal narrative. When you, say, grab all the photos from a geographical location you’re not seeing a directed collection. You are literally seeing a multitude of unique perspectives. Yes, there’s a crowd mentality and massive overlaps, but each eye is self-directed. This is what makes those patterns, when they emerge, so interesting. To turn the crowd into a directed tool seems to miss the point. And when you give explicit instructions to the crowd, no matter how loose - “film the festival using this camera - it will be displayed on these screens” - you destroy part of that autonomy, that uniqueness. But giving up control seems like something artists have a big problem with.

Later I saw some of the results of these GoPro cameras. They’d been given to some kids who, rather than engage with the festival, had strapped them onto a remote controlled car and driven them around a neighbouring square. It’s a failure but a really nice one as they kids went completely self-directed and off-piste.

That was interesting, this blind spot Art has towards some really interesting developments in visual imaging. I get that art is not about novelty, that great art can be made with the most basic of tech. I saw this at the Israeli show. But surely a festival devoted to exploring the potentials and possibilities of electronic arts would have been exploring the artistic potential of recent developments in cameras? At the very least I was hoping to see stuff in the flesh that I’d only seen online, but the closest I got was a Lytro camera from 2011 or so. And let’s not even start on a festival theme about memory in the digital age that doesn’t address how people are using photography as a visual language on social networks. That’s just scary.

If, and it’s a big if, Ars Electronica’s blind spot for photography is not unique and the wider Art world is similarly numb to the potentials and possibilities of cameras today, then this is actually quite an exciting time to be a photographic artist. I have to be wary of hubris, obviously, but hell, the field looks wide open.

Compare this with the state of Sound Art currently. There’s loads going on, some of it beautiful, some of it challenging, all of it interesting. And at Ars, despite this conservative streak, it was not hard to find. A cathedral was populated with keyboards which when triggered would play field recordings. On a smaller scale, four Japanese artists were presenting Wave Form Media, taking the graphical representation of sound files familiar to users of services like SoundCloud, and turning them into 3D objects - a simple and in many ways shallow exercise but one which made me reconsider the aesthetic value of the histogram for photography.

A major piece on show was Ei Wada’s Toki Ori Ori Nasu – Falling Records in which a bank of old reel-to-reel tape players (again with the retro-porn) played a low drone as their tape fell down a long pipe into patterns at the bottom. When the tapes were run through they quickly rewound revealing the drone to be The Blue Danube.

There were also musical performances, some better than others but embracing a wide range of sonic arts from classical orchestra to discordant noise. Nothing struck me as particularly new but I was taken by Chris Carlson’s Borderlands Granular, an iPad app which he played on stage with a live video feed projected behind him. I really liked this projection, which solves the “electronic music is boring to watch” problem and brings it into the performative world of the guitarist. Graphical touch interfaces are by their nature visually interesting and seeing where the sounds “come from” involves the audience. There’s also something refreshing here. This is just an ipad app. Anyone could do this. Not in the same way or to the same standard, but there’s no mystery, no hierarchy. It’s not weird or expensive tech - it’s just an app. That’s quite exciting.

More to the point, the ideas explored by the app are interesting. Small sound files are represented as now-familair waveforms which can be resized and moved around. Small circles are them placed on the waveforms which play whatever section they’re over. Micro-loops of sound are filtered and distorted to create new tones. It’s a beautiful constraint. I wonder what the visual equivalent would be. A light wave? A histogram plotted though a movie clip? More to the point, where were the people exploring this?

I left Linz on Tuesday with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was great to have spent five days with my Art head on and to be able to frame my thoughts and ideas in this environment. But on the other hand Ars Electronica was not at all what I’d expected it to be. When I went to SWSXi for the first time in 2008 I was blown away, not by the ideas on show but by the way they were being presented and thought about. All my seemingly silly notions about what would soon be branded “social media” were being given a serious platform by serious people. It was both an affirmation that I was on the right track and a map showing how far I had to go.

When I returned to SXSWi in 2009 I had a very different experience. Facebook was in ascendance, VC money was rife and “social media” was starting to be co-opted by the marketing and PR wonks. The good people were in retreat and now can be found at smaller events like XOXO and Webstock though I don’t feel the need to join them anymore.

Last week I got talking to an artist on a Still Walking walk who said he’d been to Ars in the early days. My ears pricked up as I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Karen (I’ll be doing this next week!). I told him of my disappointment and confusion. He said something had happened a few years back, some new regime or ideology. I suspect it was inevitable. An edgy, innovative festival gets established, builds a museum, becomes part of the city and looses the thing that made it vital. I’m sure It’s still an important place to go for the European Art crowd, to meet and mix before the next event in the next city, but as somewhere where important work is made and shown, not so much, not anymore.

And that’s fine. Finding the good stuff shouldn’t be easy. I may well have been doing Ars “wrong” (though I did ask the embedded Birmingham contingent who had been there for a few weeks and they had a similar feeling) and maybe the good stuff was behind a corner I didn’t know about. Maybe I was wrong to concentrate on the exhibits and to not stick with the conferences though, from what I saw, they were alienatingly academic and dense.

I wouldn’t write Ars Electronica off after one visit. I’d like to go again with a guide, someone who had been many times before and understood the backchannels, the fringe. I didn’t have that, nor the chutzpa to find it on my own. But for an emerging artist going on their own with no substantial body of work, someone going for inspiration, to push themselves into new areas, I don’t think I’d recommend it. Which is a bit of shame.

Still, Linz is lovely, the weather was stupendously good, the people very friendly and the food, once I figured it out, rather splendid. I particularly liked how my mistakenly ordering a kebab for breakfast, something that in the UK would have been a disaster, turned out to be perfect - a fried breakfast in a bun.

I think Ars Electronica 2013 can best be summarised by their choice of Featured Artist. HR Giger was a visionary who, through his association with Alien, contributed vastly to the futuristic aesthetic of the 1980s. For me he was an essential part of my artistic education, visually, politically and personally. He took an underground aesthetic into the mainstream and changed the world.

But Giger is an old man now. I missed his Q&A but Leon reported HR pretty much sat in the corner while the curator spoke eloquently about the work. Towards the end he mumbled something and that was it. A great hero who has had some great adventures laid low by age. Upstairs a scene from the movie Prometheus was on a loop, illustrating genetics or something in a populist way. Giger’s role in that movie felt like Ars Electronica’s role in contemporary electronic arts. Once a powerhouse of innovation and excellence, now a shadow.

Is the Ars of days gone by happening in another city somewhere? Or has the era of being able to put “Electronic Arts” under one umbrella passed?

Thoughts from Still Walking

October 20th 2013

In September I went on (nearly) every walk on the Still Walking programme. My interests at the moment are broadly split between photography, specifically what it means to take a photo as a creative act, and walking. Walking is, of course, a massively broad subject, ranging from the mundane to the herculean, but as with photography I think I’m interested in what you might call the “process” of walking - what happens when you decide to move through a particular place at a particular pace and experience it in a particular way. This is the foundation of my Photo Walks and it seemed it was one of the core themes of Ben Waddington’s commissioned walks for Still Walking. So I booked them all.

I don’t want to review each walk. While that might be interesting and worthwhile I don’t think it would serve my purpose. I took notes during the walks and will be using this blog post to try and pull out some connecting thoughts and ideas. We shall see where they lead.


Subjective vs Objective

All guided walks are subjective journeys through an objective reality. This tension is, I think, what makes them interesting. Laira Piccinato’s rainy walk around the Jewellery Quarter was about words that were written in the buildings themselves, not merely stuck on a signs. It was, in many ways, a classic guided tour, seeped in history and facts but with a very personal edge.

Whether deliberately or as a nervous twitch Laira often ended her statements with “which I think is interesting” which caught my attention. I say it often when leading a walk and it feels like a defensive get-out - “if you don’t agree then fine, it’s just my opinion” - but it’s probably the fundamental definition of a guided tour. I am showing you this thing because I find it interesting. There is no other reason needed.

But despite this it still feels weak to me, or at least dependent on the strength of the guide. Do we care if Laira finds these things interesting? What does her opinion matter? If she’s cited a respected historian as finding these things interesting, or a popular poll which had voted these things the most interesting, would this have raised or diminished her status as a guide?

“Interesting” is a very subjective state. If I say something is interesting, particularly something not generally considered to be of interest, you would expect me to justify this statement. If my only justification is “I feel it in my gut and believe it to be so” then the judgement falls onto my person. Who am I? Why should you believe me?

Well, I am the tour guide. We have a contract where for a period of time and suspend your own subjectivity to walk in my shoes, to see through my eyes. I am the leader, you will follow. Later you are free to disagree, to call me on my judgements, but for now we agree that I am right and will see where that leads.

These ideas about subjectivity didn’t really sink in until Iris Bertz’s walk on the Saturday “exploring the accidental, secret, hidden and imagined public art near the Ikon Gallery”. This was explicitly a personal journey, full of assumptions and wilful misinterpretations of evidence. Iris didn’t seem interested in what she was actually seeing. She didn’t want to know the truth behind how these things came to be. Her purpose was to make things up, to make up stories.

So we saw an unused cable looped and fixed to the wall in a way which displayed craft and care, human shapes emerging from a sandstone wall resembling Hiroshima shadows, Mondrian in the windows of the old TV centre, the shape of a crocodile in pealing plaster which had been chewed by the crocodile we met on a barge, and arrows to nowhere gaffer-taped onto doors.

“Art is things that don’t make sense” is in my notes, and I don’t know whether Iris said that or I inferred it. Does that mean Art denies inquiry? Is this the parable of the poet who says the scientist ruins the beauty of the flower by explaining it? Or is it an acceptance that we cannot know every story, every explanation, and it is sometimes good to just go with that and see what stories emerge from our imaginations?

I really enjoyed Iris’s walk, especially as I had lead a photo walk through that area and loved seeing it afresh through her eyes, but this statement troubled me. Can you not make Art from things that do make sense? I want to believe you can, but as I think about it, it would probably result in very dull Art. My rationalisation is that the practice of doing Art is exploring things that don’t make sense, and the purpose of Art is to make some sense of them. But if that Art is to have any value, to be of any worth, it cannot be pure fantasy. It need to be grounded in some way. Or maybe I am wrong here.

On Tom Jones’ Walk Look Talk Know, where walkers were invited to use sketching to develop an understanding of the place they were in (something I was very interested in as I try to use photography in a similar way) someone in the group said “It’s quite nice not knowing.” This ignorance-is-bliss approach to the world annoyed me for some reason. Of course it’s nice not knowing. If you don’t know then you can’t care and you’re free to just carry on with your life. To know something is to carry that knowledge as a burden, to use that information for a purpose. As Tom’s title suggested, the act of walking, looking and talking creates knowledge. Once you know something it’s hard to un-know it. It might make you uncomfortable or sad, or it might make your life easier and happy.

I have a philosophical approach to Art. For me it is a means to enquire of and understand the world through the making of things, be they sculptures, paintings, plays, comics, photographs or walks. The idea that an artistic pursuit might reinforce ignorance confuses me, and I’m sure it’s not anyone’s intent. (All three walks mentioned above were excellent, by the way.)

So this conflict between objective and subjective, between fact and fiction, remains.

And that’s not even going down the road of whether we can have an objective knowledge about a place and our definition of “place” to begin with. Sheesh.


Senses

Some of the walks were explicitly about using our senses in new, or more attuned, ways. SOUNDkitchen’s SOUNDWalk was an obvious one where a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir was augmented with listening exercises. By concentrating on how we listened, and by listening to things we couldn’t otherwise experience (though contact mics, hydrophones and ultrasonic microphones), we began to perceive the environment in new ways. This was probably the most useful walk for me as I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences between microphones and cameras for a while now (thanks to mainly to If Wet) and I hope to work with SOUNDkitchen in the future should our interests align.

An interesting concept I came away with was that of all the sounds creating a unified whole where everything that could be heard belonged there. We think often about noise “pollution” and people not shutting up, but the exercises on this walk reminded be a bit of John Cage listening to traffic. It’s all sound, it’s all music. By discarding associations with particular sounds and considering them as a unified whole I finally a useful meaning of the term “soundscape”. All the sounds you can hear, all at once.

One of the topics I teach in photography is being aware of the whole picture. As humans we filter most of the information our senses record in order that we can process what’s important and not go insane. So when we’re framing a photo of a person and waiting for them to smile we quite often filter out the background because it’s not important… until we come to review the photo itself. When rendered as a rectangle of coloured dots everything is visible to mind’s eye and it’s only composition that ranks the contents of the image. When we go to take a photo we have to switch off this subjective filtering of our vision and see everything that fits in the viewfinder. Only then can we predict how the photo might turn out.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how very different a flat photograph is to reality as we perceive it. A photography has no movement, no depth, no shimmering. It holds no memory of what came before or might come after. It has no smell, no sound, no touch. It is just dots on paper or a screen. And we are surprised when our photos fail to live up to awesomeness of the moment. The photos that do evoke those feelings tend to be quite abstract, using short focus or high contrast to give the viewer space to fill in the gaps. A “perfect” photo is very rarely an emotional one. But I digress.)

So this notion of hearing everything could be a very useful tool for getting a photographer to see everything, to be fully aware of their surroundings. One exercise we did was to listen through amplified stereo microphones suspended in the trees. Initially shocked by the loudness and then entranced by the sensitivity (it picked up my hand stroking the bark) I quickly noticed the subtleties that were revealed. This was the next stage of exploring the soundscape - below the obvious was a world of quiet sounds, or details and echoes. It was beautiful.


So what is place?

In the first ramble I ended with an off the cuff comment about not wanting to define “place”, but I think it might be useful to try. The term crops up a lot in Art-speak descriptions of work that talks about, well, places, and it seems pretty obvious at first. A place is a location in space bounded by geographical constraints, usually socially constructed ones. A city, a village, a street, a borough, a field - these are “places”.

Implicit in this is that a place is defined by the human activity that occurs in it. When we ask “what is Walsall” or “what is “Digbeth” the expected answer is not “an area of land containing a number of buildings, streets and rivers”. We’re asking for definitions that come from what people do there. Is there an active night life? Are there good shops? What are the churches like? Are the people friendly?

So a place is an area of land that is occupied, or at the very least informed, by people. It is distinct from a location as a home is from a house. A house is a collection of bricks, tiles and windows. A home is where people live, where social activities happen.

So to make enquiries as to a “place” is really to enquire as to the people of that location and the things they do there. But a place doesn’t only exist in space - it exists in time. When we talk about a place we visited last week, is it really the same as the place we might visit tomorrow?

This problem is best explained with restaurant reviews. A review of a meal in a restaurant is often taken to be a review of the whole restaurant at any given time, but it cannot be. A gifted reviewer might be able to generalise or increase their sample, but it is just a snapshot. If you go on a day when the meat is fresh, the chef in a good mood and the waiting staff welcoming then you will declare this restaurant to a good place to eat. But what if the meat delivery is delayed, the chef unwell and the waiter about to quit? The review won’t be as good. Which is right?

The solution is to take lots of reviews and eliminate the outliers to find the average opinion, and the likes of TripAdvisor enable us to do that. But you can see why back in the bad old days a bad Zagat review could mean an unfair death for an establishment.

One way to know a place is to spend time there. I know Digbeth pretty well because I’ve visited it, both to work and to play, a fair amount in the last decade. My opinion of it is informed by the range of experiences I’ve had around and while it is by no means complete it is fuller than someone who has just got off the coach and turned right instead of left.

My Digbeth is also informed by the conversations I’ve had with people with different experiences to mine. Indeed most of the stories I tell on a photo walk are stories I’ve been told which may or may not be true. (Sometimes I’m reluctant to find out the truth because the story is too good, so I’m just as guilty of the ignorance-is-bliss approach.) I’m painting a picture of a place, but I’m doing so in a selective painting-by-numbers way, revealing things to create a narrative, a specific idea.

In a way all descriptions of place are fictions, in that it’s impossible to compose an objective description. Even if you could gather all the facts about a place by the time you’d done so, let alone read them out, the place would have changed.


This has been sitting in a text file slowly growing for a few weeks now. I think it’s probably time to publish it.

Working out the Walks

October 22nd 2013

I’ve scheduled the four photo walks which form the culmination of this period of research into photography and walking and place. They take place over four days in November and tickets are on sale on this site.

What’s not on this site is any description of what the walks might be. That’s because I haven’t decided, not because I don’t know but because I have far too many ideas. I’ve been swimming in inspiration soup for four months, which has been great, but it’s time to, I dunno, strain out the bones and refine the stock, or something. To force me to do this I set the ultimate deadline.

In this blog post I’m going to make the first attempt at carving out four themes for the walks. Let’s see what happens.

First, some general principles.

  • The walks must be accessible. My standard photo walks, run through Photo School, work because anyone who can carry a camera and walk around for 90 minutes can get something out of them. This is something I’ve worked hard to ensure. It is not a walk for “photographers” with fancy cameras who want to talk about esoteric things. It’s a walk for everyone. Similarly these walks can not be for “artists” to the exclusion of others.
  • The theory is secondary. I’ve read and thought about a lot of things that will feed into these walks, but these things should inform the walks, not dominate them. The theory should be a means to an end and understanding its nuances should not be necessary.
  • They must be different. I’ve been running photo walks for 18 months. There are loads of photography-related walking tours and workshops. These cannot be like those. They have to be different in some fundamental ways.
  • They cannot be experiments. I’ve been in a period of experimentation and research but the walks are not part of that. While part of a long-term process these walks must be solid concepts, stand alone products, that can be experienced and appreciated as they are.
  • They are artworks. This has been a tricky thing to get my head around and then articulate, but the walks themselves need to be works of art. That doesn’t make them better than my “normal” walks. It just brings in some new criteria.
  • The walkers are participants. Following on from the above, the people who come on these walks are participating in the creation of an artwork. Again, a bit of a weird one and something that needs to be addressed but kept in perspective.

It also might be worth revisiting the four initial frameworks I came up with for the Arts Council application. Writing these was weird in a Catch-22 kinda way. I wanted funding to devise some frameworks but needed to say what the frameworks were in order to justify the funding to devise them, but I took it to be an indication of where my work might lead, not something written in stone. If I did none of them it wouldn’t matter. So, where was my mind at back in June?

  1. The Tour Guide As Filter. What does it mean to be a guide? How does a guide inform perception of the city through route and narration? How can this be distributed among participants? What can we learn from storytelling, collaborative and didactic? How can the tensions between the guide and the guided be explored?
  2. Expanding The Treasure Hunt. Can the hackneyed model of participants photographing a list of subjects be made fresh? How can exploration be narrated and guided through making connections, building new maps and creating new realities?
  3. Photo Manipulation Through Sense. Can photographs be “manipulated” by altering other senses? Using audio triggered in specific locations, participants experience different sounds to explore how this affects their visual perception.
  4. Storytelling. Participants are encouraged to build their own narrative of the area through ten photographs. Workshopped after the walk and exhibited online.

The first now feels too broad, and I’ve moved on from that. The second is still intriguing but I don’t think I’ve figured out a way to do it yet. The third I’m sticking with. The fourth was a total misfire. But at the very least I can see the threads that lead me to those and how I’ve gotten from then to now, so that’s good.


So, as of right now, what are my current frameworks for these walks?

Audio Walk

This either uses sounds and music to manipulate the participants’ moods when taking photographs, OR, using listening exercises to inform photographic subjects, inspired by the SOUNDkitchen walk during Still Walking and conversations at If Wet. The intersection of sound art and photography (the manipulation and recording of sound waves and light waves) has been at the forefront of my research so something involving that has to happen.

Rules Walk

This comes from the Practical Psychogeography workshop I ran with Cathy Wade and never got around to writing up because it contained multitudes and I didn’t know where to start, though I think I do now. The main thing here is constraining the walk through rules or instructions. They could be very specific or they could be very vague. They could also include a random element (roll a die at each junction). The purpose here is to subvert the idea of a “guide” and force the participants to go in directions they wouldn’t normally choose. I also like the idea of forcing people to revisit the same place a few times. How this works in a group will need some careful consideration.

Team Walk

This is the risky one as I have no idea how it might work. The inspiration comes, again, from thinking about how musicians control sound and how that might be applied to photographers. Musicians often work in groups which requires acute awareness of what the others in the group are doing. Photographers are solitary practitioners who very rarely work together to create an image, or series of images. But a decade of social activity based around photographs on Flickr and similar environments has certainly shown photographers can work together in some creative ways. The big idea here is the creation of Photographer Quartets where four people work together as equals, each with their own camera, to create something. Maybe it’s as simple as a capturing the same moment from four perspectives. Maybe it’s something more complex. But they have to be “in tune” with each other.

Framed Walk

This looks at the idea of framing, both visually and mentally. When we create a frame we decide what to include and what to exclude. When we’re given a frame we focus on what’s within it and discard what isn’t. I’m interested in how these decisions are made, consciously and subconsciously, and how we might adjust them to see things in new ways. This takes a lot of inspiration from the Still Walking programme and might involve people with local knowledge having a conversation with participants before the walk. This is probably the vaguest walk at the moment.


So, those are my walks as they currently stand. My goal is to have them completely nailed down by Monday and I would welcome any feedback anyone might have either in the comments below or by email. I’ll also be at If Wet this Sunday if you’re going to that.

Further Working out of the Walks

October 25th 2013

It’s been a few days since I broadly set out my plans for the walks in November. Soon after I had a meeting with Karen, my mentor helping me navigate the world of art and artists. Tomorrow I’m meeting Annie from Soundkitchen and Sunday is If Wet where I hope to bend Sam’s ear for a few minutes.

So it’s probably a good idea to run through my ideas for the four walks again to see where I’m at.

In the last draft I had four quite different walks, although they did fall into two broad areas. Audio and Team both feel very influenced by music and musicians. Rules and Framed are to do with maps and constraints. It struck me that maybe my interest in how sound artists do their thing has tricked me into using sound as a substitute for photography while thinking it is a radically different thing, but all I’m doing is talking about photography. And that’s fine.

So in essence I’m back to my original premise, exploring photography and walking, just spread over four exercises. It’s probably time to bring them together.

It’s also time to think about what happens after the walks. If the walk is an artwork created by the participants, how is that artwork displayed, if at all?

If I had to summarise the purpose of these walks (which I guess I do have to) it would be as follows:

To explore how people see their environment through the mediated act of photography.

Alongside that I’d add a secondary purpose:

To see how a person’s aesthetic and compositional decisions change depending on their environment.

It’s a little clunky but it’s pretty much there. For a range of reasons (people I know, personal interests) my research keeps bumping into sound. Sound and vision are probably the main senses we use to negotiate an urban landscape (smell, touch and taste are important but won’t stop you getting run over by a bus). I think all four walks need to involve listening.

Sound and Vision.

What the walkers are listening to, or how they listen, I’m not going to worry about tonight. What’s important is that sound is going to be the key that informs their photography, and their walking.

So, I’m starting to get a template of how these walks might come together.

The trigger

A sound of some kind. It could be pre-recorded and played on headphones, it could be inserted into the environment, it could be an ambient sound. When the sound is heard it either triggers an action (acting as a rule) or merely changes the ambiance.

The action

The thing that is done when the trigger is… triggered. Most obviously the taking of a photograph but it could be a walking instruction or something subconscious that only comes to light when the photographs are reviewed.

The result

I’m assuming this will be the photographs people take though it could also be the experience they had and their articulation of that experience. How this is captured and displayed (if at all) will be the manifestation of the “artwork”.

That feels too simple, but simple is good, so I’m going to go with it.

Collaborating with Sonographers

October 31st 2013

[Sonographers are technically medial professionals who do ultrasounds and the like, and while it would be fascinating to work with that sort of image-making equipment they won’t be collaborating with me on the walks. I just liked how it sounded a bit like “Photographers” and I’ve been told you should never let the truth get in the way of a good pun.]

The walks are really starting to come together now. The methodological framework is in place and I’m getting a clearer sense of what’s actually going to happen on the days themselves.

An important part of this was the decision to get some collaborators. This might seem counter-intuitive given this is my project to produce my art, but collaboration has always been part of what I do. Even when I’m writing stuff like this I see it as a collaboration with whoever is reading it. Your presence as a reader forces me to explain myself and in doing so work through my ideas more thoroughly than I would in my notebook. In my social media days I called it “social processing” and it relates to the idea that the person who gets the most from a classroom situation is the teacher because they have to really understand what they’re trying to explain. (See also my obsession with the fundamentals of cameras which emerged from explaining the fundamentals of cameras every month.)

Collaborating creates a Venn diagram between the people involved, forcing you into the intersection. Given I have too many ideas and notions buzzing around my head, anything that helps me focus on a few of them for a while can only be a good thing. And while the collaborator might not directly reference their ideas and notions that don’t cross over with mine, their influence will be felt, pushing me out of any comfort zones I might have fallen into.

As I said in the last post, I’ve decided my collaborators should be sound artists and musicians - people who have an acute and creative aural awareness of their environment. The hope is that their practice will run in parallel with what we’re trying to achieve as photographers, while different enough to push us in new directions.

In essence, how does listening relate to and inform seeing in a city?

The seed of this was a photo walk workshop I ran at Ikon. After a nice walk around Brindley Place we crossed over Broad St to get to Gas St Basin. Broad St, even on a Saturday afternoon, is a pretty hellish place with traffic and people and noise. The photos people took there were claustrophobic and rushed. Gas St Basin, just a few metres away, is a calm, contemplative place and the photos also reflected that.

With that in mind I’ve devised a couple of approaches. The first is to use the sounds around us as an influencer. A simple example might be to ask the walkers to stop and close their eyes for 5 minutes and really listen, creating an impression of the environment in their minds. Then, at a given signal, they should open their eyes and take a photo. My theory is they’ll see in a way they wouldn’t have.

The second approach is to replace the environmental sounds with pre-recorded audio. Think about how the music you listen to with headphones while walking around influences how you see the city, how rhythms in the music match up with movements in your vision. I want to see how a soundtrack can subconsciously affect the creation of photographs by getting lots of people to shoot while under the influence of the same audio.

SOUNDkitchen will be providing these two approaches on the weekend of November 16/17 with a series of listening exercises for specific locations for one walk and a 90 minute prepared audio track to listen to on the other. (They’ll be confirming which will happen on which day very soon). I had a walk around Digbeth with Annie from SK today and we’re definitely on the same wavelengths. Just hers are soundwaves and mine lightwaves. Ha! (Sorry.)

Sam Underwood is the other collaborator. I’ve known Sam for many years and his 2011 dive into being a mad artist has been very inspirational. Readers of my blog will know his If Wet meetups have informed my thinking tremendously so once I’d decided to work with sound I really wanted him on board. Sam will be with me for at least one of the walks on the second weekend (to be confirmed) and it looks like we’ll be doing some macro listening and photographing starting with using stethoscopes to see what tiny sounds the city makes before shooting the tiny details, perhaps with magnifying glasses. Ooh, the possibilities.

If Sam can only do one day then the final walk is still up in the air, but I’m not worried. Most everything is in place now. Confidence is high.

Three posts on the Photo School blog

The following three posts were written on the Photo School blog in November to promote the walks. The first is a report, the second and third are previews.

Photographing Sounds with SOUNDkitchen

On Saturday I ran the first of my new Photo Walks in Digbeth that used sound as framing device. I’ve been running photo walks walks for over a year now and really wanted to try something new to see how they might be improved, so I decided to work with a couple of musicians from SOUNDkitchen, Iain Armstrong and Annie Mahtani. I met them on a walk they did for Still Walking in September which reminded me a lot of my photo walks, only they got people to listen with their ears rather than see with their eyes. We had a chat and decided it would be fun and interesting to merge our walks and see what happened.

The walk started outside Curzon St Station on a crisp November morning with Ian leading the group into the middle of the large expanse of grass there. It’s an unusual sort of space to find in the middle of a city providing large vistas with few barriers to sight and sound. Iain talked about listening and being aware of sounds in the distance, seeing if we could hear things as they vanished from sight or if they merged with the ambient roar of the city. After five minutes of aural concentration I asked everyone to pick up their cameras and just start taking photos, mindful of the sounds they’d been hearing.

We then moved on to a bridge on Fazeley Street over which trains constantly rumble to New St Station while cars (and the occasional skateboarder) head into Digbeth. Here the conditions were quite different - claustrophobic, echoey and dark. Again with the listening and the looking. Next we went up the hill to where the Birmingham Dogs Home backs on to the Latifs car park. Here we wanted to people to think about the strangeness of hearing lots of dogs without seeing them. We asked people to really listen to the dogs and try and count the individual voices while looking at the people and cars we could see.

Finally we went into the Bull Ring car park under the massive railway arches on Allison Street, where the sounds of cars mixed with the hum of industrial ventilation and echoed off the cathedral-like walls. Then a casual walk down to the noisy bustle of the Custard Factory, listening and viewing what we might hear and see, before a pint or two in the Old Crown. During all this Annie was quietly recording the ambient sounds so we can use them to create something with everyone’s photos later on.

I was, frankly, pretty nervous about this walk. While both Iain and myself were bringing our professional skills to bear this was new territory for us both. But I can honestly say it worked better than we expected. We kept the theory and jargon in check and really focussed on helping people to experience the city in some new ways. If you’re annoyed you missed the walk, fear not, we hope to run it again next year.

And this Saturday sees a very similar, if completely different, sound walk with Sam Underwood, another musician who does a lot of urban listening. We’ll be using stethoscopes and microphones to pick up the tiny sounds of the city and use these to frame our photographs. Sam has an infectious enthusiasm and this should be a lot of fun!

And then on Sunday Annie from SOUNDkitchen has prepared a 60 minute soundtrack which we’ll be listening to simultaneously as we walk through Digbeth taking photos. We’re hoping the soundtrack will subtly affect your perception so you take photos you otherwise wouldn’t, and we’re planning on stitching the audio and everyone’s photos together to see what patterns emerge.

Micro-Listening Photo Walk with Sam Underwood - a preview

This Saturday Pete will be leading a special photo walk in Digbeth with musician and artist Sam Underwood. It will follow the same loose format as last week’s walk with Iain from SOUNDkitchen but will be very different indeed. For a start, Iain is a soft-spoken Scot while Sam is a grinning bearded chatterbox.

Sam has done all manner of things related to sound and music but specifically relevant to this walk is his Sonic Graffiti project where he installed a number of electronic instruments in the fabric of Digbeth. At least one of them is still functioning, cemented into one of the railway arches by the Custard Factory. (If you come on Saturday we’ll show it to you.)

The Sonic Graffiti project is a nice example of a theme throughout Sam’s work - the juxtaposition of natural, ambient sounds and his own manufactured sounds, and what comes from that combination. To this end he has developed many techniques for listening and processing the sounds around him, from simple cupping of ears to specialist microphones.

On Saturday he’ll share some of his techniques and help you become aware of sounds you might not have noticed before, or in some cases have been unable to hear. We’ll use contact microphones and stethoscopes to penetrate the shell of the city and use our bodies to feel the vibrations of Digbeth. And then we’ll take some photos.

With the last walk I was pretty relaxed about what sort of photos people took. I wanted to see where their imaginations would go, and they went in some really interesting places. (I’ll be writing this up properly after this weekend.)With Sam’s walk I want to be more prescriptive.

One of my favourite classes we ran at the beginning of Photo School in 2012 was Abstract Photography and I’ve used facets of that class in workshops I’ve run for the Ikon gallery. Abstract street photography is a rich area to play in because it encourages you to look closer and find new images in familiar objects. It can be gritty and realistic or fantastical and otherworldly. By using a tight frame and getting right into the details we really get to know Birmingham in an intimate way.

So, on Saturday Sam Underwood will get you listening closely to Digbeth, and then I’ll get you to look closely. And then you’ll take some photos. What marvelous photos they will be.

Soundtracking Digbeth with SOUNDkitchen - a preview

This Sunday is my third and, for now, final experimental walk and it’s both the simplest and possibly the most interesting. While the other two are traditionally Guided Walks with “experts” leading you though an experience, this one is more freeform. Within a few parameters set at the beginning, and the occasional nudge from myself, you will decide as a group where you walk and what you see.

While you walk you’ll all be listening to a 60 minute soundtrack prepared by SOUNDkitchen’s Annie Mahtani, using sounds gathered from around Birmingham from traffic to birdsong, with periods of silence to let the natural sounds through. At the start of the walk we’ll all press play together and experience these new sounds at the same time. The idea is it gently changes your perception of what’s around you in a synchronised way. Maybe.

The walk will start at the Custard Factory and head north towards the canal and the edge of the district. I have a good idea of where we’ll go but I don’t want to stick to it religiously. Digbeth is rich enough that I know we’ll find interesting things so I want to see where the music takes the group. You could think of it as a Debordian dérive, if you’re that way inclined, or a follow-your-nose ramble.

The walk is intended to be a fun experience in itself, but if all goes to plan there will be an interesting outcome. At the start of the soundtrack you’ll be asked to take a reference photo. By using the timestamp on that photo we’ll be able to tell what you were listening to when you took the photos. My plan is to take everyone’s photos and plot them along the soundtrack. This could be as simple as an audio slideshow or it could be more complex. Maybe each photo will have a 30 second loop of the sounds that preceded it. I won’t know until I start to work on it.

This new work will be completed by the middle of December. And if this walk works we plan on extending the project, maybe opening it up to the world through a smartphone app or something. We have big ideas. But right now we need to see if this concept has legs, and for that we need your help. The walk will take up 90 minutes of your time on Sunday from 12 noon. You’ll need a camera (any camera, from a fancy DSLR to your phone) and an mp3 player (we have 5 spares we can lend out) and that’s it. You don’t need to be a “photographer” or an “artist” - you just need to have eyes and ears.

Fear and Art

November 11th, 2013

I’m accustomed to a bit of fear in my life. Periods of anxiety and depression through my 20s and 30s (now in remission thanks to meds and Fiona) have made The Fear a bit of a familiar friend. The feeling can almost be comforting - the one thing that makes sense and relates to past experience. Maybe that’s why I keep putting myself in positions that encourage it. It’s certainly been a pattern over the years. Get stable, get bored, do something radically different, get paralysed by the enormity of what I’ve taken on, get the fear, get through it, get stable and repeat.

This recent adventure in Art has been an attempt to quash this pattern by creating a stable and safe space to do the radically different things I need to do, but it’s also been a classic exercise in ever expanding enormity. My main question is “What does it mean to take a photograph in a place?” which leads to questioning the fundamentals of photography and the definitions of place. Nothing too broad then. And now I’m about to run some walks which try to combine these quite high-level questions (which I can’t hope to have satisfactorily answered in four months) with a desire to make them coherent and accessible to all comers, because what I’m also interested in is the death of the elitist photographer and the effects of ubiquitous snapping and sharing by, and on, “ordinary people”. Nothing too broad there either.

I am, and always have been, my own worst enemy. And that’s fine. I accepted this years ago. Still, it’s not easy.

I have a few artists who have been great inspirations to me, partly for the work they do but mostly for the way that they approach their work. Brian Duffy is one of those touchstones with his combination of tech and art and his insistence, through the Modified Toy Orchestra, on being accessible in order to get his message across. A couple of years back he recommended a book, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I bought a copy and found it interesting but it was only this week I found it relevant to my situation. The book is chock full of great phrases but never falls into the aphoristic tedium of self-help. I highly, strongly recommend it to anyone who is involved in any definition of “creativity” at any level. And it’s short - the first half has the good stuff and is only 60 pages long - which is always a good thing for a book to be.

This is the bit that encapsulates where my fear is at right now:

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.

When I was putting in the Arts Council proposal it was made very clear that while they were interested in funding artist development with long term aims, and that that was what I was applying for, there had to be an “tangible outcome” during the period funded. An artwork (in my case the walks) that can be pointed to as the result of the funding. This is both utterly reasonable and incredibly daunting. How, when I am in the middle of a process to find coherence, am I supposed to sum up that process in a coherent work? It feels like running before I can walk.

My first way of dealing with this was to use the iceberg metaphor, something I use a lot when talking about online activity. What you see of a person online - their tweets, status updates, essays, photographs - is only a small facet of their personality. It’s as real and honest as they would be if you met them in person, but it’s only a part, often carefully chosen and mediated. The same goes for this artwork, these walks. They will be honestly and accurately informed by the work I’ve been doing, but only partially. They cannot hope to showcase everything I’ve been thinking about and working on. And nor should they. For a start that would make for a terrible experience for all involved, and no-one wants that.

Also, no-one should be expected to care about my process over the last few months. I’ve been documenting it here (though not as well as I’d hoped to) but that’s mainly been for my own benefit. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read it all in great detail. If the artwork reflects my processes then it fails. It needs to be distinct, to stand alone. To be, in common parlance, a product.

One thing that’s struck me as I’ve been sitting awake in bed at 3am stroking the fearbeast (not a euphemism) has been how hard it is to market “art”. I’ve hit this a few times with Photo School. When we started we had big ideas about effectively teaching visual art. We’d look at composition and colour and light and reflect on how the great masters of photography practiced their art. But it turned out people weren’t coming for that. They were coming to learn how to use their cameras for their own ends. So after a few false starts we don’t bother with broad-strokes advanced photography classes now. It’s Beginners all the way. Oh, and the occasional workshop like Light Painting which is more fun than work (though much learning does happen of course).

I’ve long advocated the DIY ethic for creative folks. When the tools are there for the taking, as they have increasingly been over the last few decades from the photocopier to the internet, why go through a third party, making compromises and giving away percentages, when you don’t need to? and I still stand by that, especially for emerging artists who don’t have the weight to draw opportunities to them yet. You need to make your own world, not bend to other people’s ideas, else you become an also-ran.

But this distinction between the making and the presenting, the idea of process and result being so very different, has given me pause. I think it very possible for a single person to keep control over both, but they require very different head-spaces.

It’s something I’ve hit again with Photo School. When Karen (my oft-referenced mentor) first got in touch with Matt and myself she complimented us on our operation but asked about our own work. Matt hadn’t taken a photo he was pleased with for a year and I’d just been documenting the classes. We weren’t shooting for ourselves anymore. Earlier in the year a journalist from a major photography magazine asked me for my favourite five places to take photos in Birmingham. I easily came up with a list, having taken people on walks around them many times, but struggled to find photos of my own. (The article never appeared, so screw those timewasters.) I still don’t have a photo of Curzon St Station that I’m happy with and that’s because whenever I’m there I’m not in the creative frame of mind. I’m teaching, or I’m performing as a guide. The irony of this - that I can’t take good photos when I’m teaching people how to take good photos - is not lost on me.

So it makes perfect sense that I’m struggling to both go through the process of developing my artistic nous and to prepare, promote and deliver four walks at the same time. They require very different things of me and of those who might be my audience. Because the people going on the walk cannot be expected to see more than that walk. To do otherwise is to fail them. The walk must stand alone. (It can of course lead to further enquiry as to why I did what I did, but that’s shouldn’t be required.)

In my original application I had to say what the public would get from the experience. Amongst other things I put:

  • The experience of being involved with a live artwork.
  • If the work has a post-walk section, the experience of co-creating a larger work.

In retrospect this seems foolish. How can they possibly be equal partners in this? Why would they even want to be?

I also said in the application that I’d use the audience we’d built through Photo School (450-ish newsletter subscribers) to promote the walks. I emailed them all last week and only a couple have booked. Have I misjudged? Is this a Beginners vs Advanced thing again? While I might be interested in extending and developing the Photo Walk model, is it naive to expect those who go on the walks to also be interested? Maybe I should have just said they were normal photo walks, just with new routes, and snuck the Art stuff in on the sly. To be honest, this is what I’ve been doing all along, dropping in little exercises and games that, if I’d advertised them, might have put people off coming in the first place, but which worked really well in the moment.

I’m not overly worried about the numbers. The first walk has 10 people so far, which is plenty, and the others will pick up once people know what the weather will be like. What I am concerned about is the balance. So far it’s mostly people I know. That’s not good. Although from a cynical, marketing myself to my artistic peers and potential employers maybe it is good. And that marketing side is an important part of this period of development - I need to be sustainable business if I’m going to take all this learning and do something important with it. I’m going to need people to take my practice and place it in a context that earns me a fee. That’s vital. But it’s not the process.

So, in conclusion…

The walks are important because they are the publicly visible surfacing of this publicly funded process I’ve been going through since August.

But the walks are only the surface and cannot hope to represent all the work that has gone into this process.

There is a solution. Another part of the process is the documentation. This is traditionally done as an exhibition but the idea of finding a venue and putting together an exhibition which very few people would see struck me as a waste of time and pretty pointless so I said I would:

  • Produce a simple PDF “exhibition” to be viewed on smartphones when exploring the area.
  • Produce documentation of process and results distributed via ebook.

I knew these were coming but I’d kinda put them as part of the Evaluation in my head - the stuff that comes at the end. It occurs to me now that they’re also outputs and can take on a lot more breadth than the walks, freeing up the walks to be what they need to be - enjoyable, fun days out informed, but not dominated, by artistic thinking.

I feel much better now.

Go read Art & Fear. You won’t regret it.

Speaking at Bees In A Tin

Jan 30th 2014

Since running the walks in November I have been notably silent about them. I think they were a success, though many lessons were also learned, but the process of dealing with all the stuff that came from them and putting it into some kind of coherent form has been daunting me. But I want to do it. No, I have to do it as part of the Arts Council funding I received. And now I have a platform and a deadline to work to.

Many & Varied is a group/organisation/platform founded by Nikki Pugh who has played a huge role in my understanding and practice of Art over the last half decade. One of the things M&V run is Bees In A Tin, a gathering of folk “who make or are interested in unique interfaces for the world around them”. They put out a call for submissions last year and I put forward my photo walks.

Pete regularly takes groups of people on photography walks through Birmingham – mostly Digbeth, but also other areas. Using photography as a framework his practice invites people to slow down and develop a new appreciation of their environment which he hopes they then carry through to their everyday lives. Pete offers his findings from his research.

I wasn’t sure if I was bending the criteria bit here but the walks are an interface of sorts. I enforce certain rules - walk very slowly, think through the camera - and the Arts Council funded walks added new constraints through the use of sound. But what convinced me was remembering some of the earliest feedback I received for a walk:

“Your tours have now made me unable to walk at ignorant speed. Looking at detail is slowing me down, but bringing me joy!” - Fran

A number of people have told me that, after doing one of my walks, their regular journeys to work, taken hundreds of times a year, suddenly seemed fresh. I had inadvertently reprogrammed their perceptions. This method of walking, therefore, was definitely an interface for the world.

My pitch was accepted and so I’ll be presenting for half an hour at 2pm on Feb 21st. I’m not sure how I’ll be presenting - I may talk for 30 minutes, I may ask questions of my peers, I may take everyone outside for a mini walk. I don’t know yet. But it will form the ultimate deadline for this period of research and development.

Following this I’ll be revising and relaunching the Photo Walks through Photo School itself. My intention is to keep them simple and accessible but to use them as a platform for experimenting, throwing in ideas and exercises without turning them into Capital-A Art Events. I’ll discuss the challenges of doing this at Bees.

How my Walks are Art

Feb 18th 2014

I’m preparing my presentation for Bees In A Tin on Friday about the walks I ran with sound artists last November which will form the core of my documentation of those events. At the Spaghetti Junction photo walk on Sunday I got talking to one of the participants about how leading these walks was really my “work” in an artistic sense. This evening I submitted an idea to a performance arts festival looking at the connection between performance and photography. Meanwhile the Walk On exhibition, which I blogged about the catalogue for last year, has finally made its way to the MAC arts centre down the river from me, though I haven’t had a chance to visit yet.

So it’s probably a good time to explain how leading people with cameras on walks through Birmingham is, for me, a Work of Art.

When I lead people on a walk it’s very obviously a performance. I have a script, both in terms of the route I plan to take and the manner in which I present that route. I have a role, that of the expert, the guide, and I play that role as a character quite similar to Pete Ashton but different enough that friends have commented on it.

The whole event is mediated by my decisions. The participants have their experience directed and informed by me. I decide what they see and, more critically, how they see it.

This second part is the most interesting and I’d like to address it on a number of levels.

Firstly there’s the photographic aspect. The Photo Walk is sold as a chance to experience the city as a “photographer” rather than a normal pedestrian. We walk slowly. We look up and down. We use the camera as a tool to record but also understand the environment. Mindful photography is a creative endeavour and we are creatively engaging with the environment, making small rectangular artworks from our experience. Sure, most of these artworks aren’t going to set the world on fire, but that’s the same with everything. The point is I am asking people to think about what they are walking through in these terms.

Secondly there’s the narration. I tend to be quite hands off on the walks, letting people drift and discover on their own, but I make a point to bring people together for key moments. Some of it is historical context (Curzon St Station always makes for a good story), sometimes it’s a creative exercise (really look at an object and count to 50 before photographing it), sometimes it’s drawing attention to details (I like to point out the rusting metal embedded in buildings as evidence of previous uses) but often it’s more subtle that that.

I also, and I guess this is Thirdly, set a vibe. When leading people through Digbeth or Spaghetti Junction I am often taking them to places they haven’t been to. There’s a sense of an adventure into the unknown and it’s something I have to be very careful to manage. Being photographers with relatively expensive equipment my groups often have a middle-class privilege bias to them and I tend to take them to industrial and post-industrial areas. I am constantly aware of the spectre of class tourism and ruin porn and try my best to mitigate this by showing respect for the areas we’re in. On Sunday I tried to emphasise that people live in the shadows of Spaghetti Junction and that this definitely isn’t an abandoned wasteland. Indeed, the structure looks like it does so as to cause minimal destruction underneath. It should be seen as a monumental piece of architecture which offers fantastic opportunities for photography, but also as a part of this city that, for good or ill, informs the lives of the people that live in it.

Of course I can’t control how someone sees these things. When I commented on a women wearing an incredibly striking yellow dress on a Sunday lunchtime in Digbeth I was told by one of my walkers she was definitely a prostitute, something which had never occurred to me and for which I saw no evidence. And even if she was, so what? Another time an older man found my tour of the more run-down areas around Bradford St to be depressing, which was a perfectly valid viewpoint which I sympathise, particularly as he’d worked in Birmingham when these areas were vibrant and alive. I wanted him to see it from my perspective, that there was beauty in the history that was revealed by this decay, but his feelings were too strong.

Still, not being able to control your participants is not a failure. If anything I welcome these challenges because they make me reconsider my prejudices, my perspectives. But even if they reject my framing, the framing still dominates. This is MY walk.

So, that’s the performance bit covered. But what about the artwork? Where does that fit it?

There’s a view that the walk itself is the work. I perform for 90 minutes to a small participatory audience and then we all go home. I think this view has merit, but I don’t think it makes for very interesting art. For a start you could say teaching is an artwork. People gather in a room where the teacher performs and they leave with their worldview slightly changed. Is this fundamentally any different to seeing a play in a theatre? I don’t know, to be honest, so I’ll leave that one for the “theatre in education” folks to answer.

I do know I play the same character when I’m teaching as when I’m leading a walk, and that my ability to be “a photographer” is diminished when I’m in this role. Photography, for me, is a personal process that edges into meditative at times. I find I cannot take decent photos while I’m running a workshop or a walk because I cannot get into the right mindset. (Amusingly I have no decent photos of Curzon St Station despite telling over 100 people how to take decent photos of it.) So I’d be happy to go along with the notion that my taking people through this process is, in some way, a “work of art”.

But these are more than guided walks. They are more than classes. People are taking photographs, engaging in creative activities which have outcomes in the form of photographs. This is where I think I am being an Artist creating a Work, not as the producer of a walk but as a director of other people’s photographs.

I like to think of a Photo Walk as a group of cameras attached to people over whom I exert an amount of control. I use the methodology of the tour guide to broker a situation where people are prepared to let me control their lives for a short period. As such any photographs that emerge from this process are, in some way, informed by me. I can consider the mass of photos that emerge from these walks to be “the work”. That is, if I can get hold of them.

Photography, for me, is about working with constraints. There are obvious physical constraints such as where you can place the camera. Natural constraints of light and technical constraints of the equipment used. There’s also the constraint of photography itself - the issue of thinking in terms of a rectangle of coloured dots instead of with your eyes. All these problems serve to make photography a vibrant and exciting artistic medium.

So the idea of attempting to influence a dozen or so autonomous agents in how they might take photographs and the results being “my art” is not a strange one. An important part of art, for me, is understanding when to exert control and when to just let it be. When to influence and when to not. It’s about developing an understanding of the subject and developing a relationship. My subject is the areas I lead walks in but also how those areas are perceived. Evidence of that perception is often the work.

Or at least that’s the mental framework I’m currently approaching these walks with. It’s working so far.

New Art-Walks in Birmingham this Spring

March 27th 2014

As many of you will be tired of hearing, I’m still digging myself out of the ideas pile that fell of me last year thanks to my Grants For The Arts award. It’s nearly over, though. Here’s the end-game.

  • A book about what I did, what I discovered and what I learned. Not a massive book but certainly a few chapters. This is the “exhibition” and will be released via Leanpub once it’s finished, hopefully in April.
  • An artwork based on the photos that were taken. I have a pretty good idea about what this might look like but am keeping it under wraps for now. Again, April.
  • A package of photography-based workshops and walks which can be offered by arts and culture organisations, integrated into their general offer. This is the bit where I become a resource to the arts industry in my region, paying back the Arts Council’s investment. I just need to write this up, so maybe this week but probably April.
  • A brand new series of eight walks developing the experiments in 2013 into a coherent package resulting a new work.

The new walks start on Sunday and are being run through Photo School. You can buy tickets and read my description of them there.

One of the big disappointments with the walks last autumn was how few “normal people” they attracted. Because Photo School does well on Google, a significant number of people who come to the classes and walks are not from my word-of-mouth circle and the mix of people I know and people I’d probably never meet otherwise is a great thing.

Despite being sold through Photo School, the November walks didn’t get my usual mix of people. I knew nearly everyone who came on them and many were from the art/culture community. Which was great from the sense of showing the world in which I wish to work what I do, but not so great for the work.

I think the reason for this is the word “Art”. The culture wars in this country have loaded it with meaning, both positive and negative, and it can make people feel uncomfortable, or at the very least provide a small barrier to bothering.

I was in somewhat uncharted territory, running events directly funded by the Arts Council, and one of the requirements was that people be made aware they’re participating in “an artwork”. I didn’t have a problem with this, but maybe I pushed it a bit too much. I also didn’t think about why people came on my walks. Their reasons would be myriad but they probably wouldn’t be about helping me develop my art practice.

With these new walks my artistic approach is finely attuned. I’ve done the research, thought the thinks and gathered inspiration from other artists. I’ll be doing LOADS of art on the walks and that’s what makes my walks unique to me.

But I’m not selling them as art. They’re Photo Walks with an emphasis on an educational, enjoyable experience exploring the city with cameras. I bring my artistic nous as a service but it doesn’t dominate. The overriding context is photography. Any art is a byproduct and a bonus.

Interestingly this isn’t a problem when I work for someone like the Ikon where they’re employing me as an artist. If anything I have to hide the teachy side and push the Hero Artist stuff. It’s all about context. So, to summarise:

  • I’m producing a new work this Spring / Summer.
  • It will exist as a series of eight walks and a single piece of work informed by the walks. (digital/physical/other).
  • Participants will be recruited through Photo School.
  • It builds on and continues my research from the last 6 months.

Interviews

I was interviewed twice during this project. Once was an informal chat while walking around Digbeth with a fellow artist for their project. The other was a more formal email interview for an arts website as part of Bees In A Tin.

Viaduct transcript

March 15th saw the launch of the first stage of Rich White’s Viaduct, a study of the derelict Duddeston Railway Viaduct in Digbeth which was never used and has been sitting there, like a monolithic bluebrick slug, since 1846.

This stage of the project consisted of Rich recording conversations with various people as he walked around the base of the viaduct, conversations which he then edited into a single dialogue printed in a newspaper.

I was one of the people who Rich took on a walk. I quickly forgot he was recording me and when I got the transcript I was delighted at how I came across. Using the viaduct as a framing device he managed to channel all the disparate things I’d been thinking about over the last year into coherence.

I asked Rich if I could use the unedited transcript of my walk and he said fine, so here it is. Thanks again to Rich for the opportunity and to Trevor Pitt and A3 Project Space for putting us together.

10 January 2014, 2pm

PA: I’ve never really looked at this bit. I normally just stop at the canal.

RW: Right, this is walk number two with Pete Ashton. We’re at the end of the Duddeston Viaduct looking at the big, flat face of brick. I love those shapes; the corners.

PA: It’s like a little castle; the little turrets along the top.

RW: I think the idea of leaving it as-is, that you mentioned earlier, is really nice, although I think there’s probably… I don’t know it might want some maintenance on the sides.

PA: Yeah, it will just crumble…

RW: There are bits that are falling off and crumbling. But to leave the top, which as you say, was untouched for 100 years is really nice.

PA: There probably aren’t many places in the Midlands that are untouched, even out in the countryside.

RW: Maybe we can start a campaign to get the… who is it, the Wildlife Trust? They buy tracts of land in order to keep them as-is. Anyway we can go in here [BCC car park].

PA: Wasn’t this a recycling depot?

RW: I don’t know. The BCC use it as a car park. They’ve got a building just there…

PA: I’m sure there used to be recycling trucks parked up around here?

RW: They may well have done that, but I’ve rarely seen any people here. And when I have - there’s some people in that window - they never come out and ask you what you’re doing. So we can go nosing around in all this little arches, and you get a good view up here. So up there there’s lots of not necessarily unsafe damage but I think it’d be nice to make it look… looked after?

PA: I don’t think so?

RW: But leave all the stuff coming through the brickwork.

PA: I think it’s all or nothing. Once you start fixing it…

RW: You’ve made a clean spot.

PA: It needs to just rot and die. I think. I don’t know. It the curse of preservation; once you start preserving something - you lock it in aspic or something - it’s no longer of the past, it’s no longer of the present, it just becomes like… This is alive. It might not fit in with what we consider to be looked after but it’s alive now. There’s a hell of a lot of life on there, even the lichen and the stuff that we can’t really see, and the stuff that’s eating the bricks, that’s alive. All the trees are alive, obviously. If you were to clean it up and make it all nice then it would be dead, it would be mummified, or the process would just start again, and then in a hundred years time someone will go ‘oh, they should look after that’. I’m thinking about this as representing Digbeth. The big thing that always comes to mind when I’m doing my walks around here is how Digbeth has never really been… or at least in the last century or so, has never really been razed. Little areas have been redone and knocked down and built up, but there’s this sort of sense of layering of architecture. So you’ll get a blue brick building and then a red brick and then they’ll build an extra thing on there out of concrete and then breeze blocks over here and then more bricks; you get this kind of hodge-podge of uses layered upon uses - you can see it there with that red brick thing hanging off there…

RW: And there’s that archway filled in.

PA: Yeah, and even the metal remnants you see like just bolted on to stuff, they’re not removed because there’s no need to remove them…

RW: So they stay there and the next thing goes on top of them.

PA: And it’s only when something’s in the way does it get moved out. And you see this on all of the red brick stuff around this area, where the other viaduct goes in there’s loads of that sort of stuff, and I like that about it - I like the fact that nobody’s done a clean sweep. It just stops here and if it’s not in the way we just work around it, and if it is in the way we get rid of it. And so this is just… this is a kind of extreme end of that in that it’s not really in the way and it has a use - in a strange way - we can use these arches as caves or as structures.

RW: It’s weird how it’s not in the way. It’s one of the things I like about it.

PA: It’s too big.

RW: It’s so big and it’s got the arches through it - there’s nothing you can do but get on with it, around it, because you can’t move it.

PA: You can’t move it and you’re not going to bump into it.

RW: It becomes kind of invisible.

PA: And it’s also standard for this area, there’s loads of these coming in… this one’s quite small compared to the one that goes past the Custard Factory.

RW: The one that goes into Moor Street Station.

PA: Yep.

RW: That one’s pretty massive. [Approaching hole in pier] We’ve poked our heads in here before.

PA: This is going to form part of my walks I think, oooh!

RW: A dump/sleeping quarters.

PA: They’re hollow. Who knew?

RW: I doubt they could build it solid.

PA: The irony of when I lead the photowalks… I lead between 5 and 20 people on a photography trail, normally about a mile and a bit - just over an hour, so walking really slowly, but I never get to take any decent photos because I’m always…

RW: Talking?

PA: Talking and doing the mother duck thing and making sure everyone’s OK so my brain’s in a completely different place. I had this err… somebody asked me to do my five favourite places to take photos in Birmingham and I thought ‘yes, I can do that, easy’ I knew exactly the places but I didn’t have any decent photos to give them.

RW: So that business there has itself backed onto the Viaduct. I think they actually use the inside of it for storage as well. All of their office furniture. I went in and had a chat with them and the only story they had was about rescuing ducks off the roof. I’m sure he said ducks? Again they don’t really think about it. He said something about having to brick bits of it up because you could get in through the other side, it just wasn’t secure so they blocked it up.

PA: Look at the way the building meets it, which came first, was it temporary, or how long ago was it?

RW: It looks pretty new.

PA: Mid-to-late 20th Century.

RW: I like the way it’s cut around that semi-circular thing.

PA: Do you know who owns the Viaduct?

RW: I’ve heard various things; I’ve heard Network Rail own it - or they own the top. And then the Custard Factory own quite a lot of the arches, and there are various businesses underneath it.

PA: So how would you buy this bit?

RW: I don’t know?

PA: That’s obviously just a wall…

RW: That’s a really weird triangular shaped one, that one. It’s quite nice. And this has got this stuff underneath it from the Forge Tavern - well, not underneath it but against it.

PA: Yeah, it’s just a sort of triangle…

RW: It comes to a point, and then goes off over the canal. And that one, I imagine, was just to pick up the bridge coming across.

PA: It’s all myths and stories but I heard they never made the connections over?

RW: No, I don’t think they did?

PA: So they built these and then they stopped. Before they did the connections. So it never did go over this part.

RW: I think the main bit they did use for, something I’m not quite sure what it is but something called cattle sidings? Which I assume was the cattle trucks because of the big signs at the other end, at the Bordesley Station end, it say ‘Bordesley Cattle Sidings’ I think, painted in big letters on the side.

PA: So they’d bring the cattle in on trains…

RW: I think they’d bring it in along this first big curve that comes round here…

PA: And just leave cows on it.

RW: But I don’t think it went any further than this. So we can go up here a little way…

PA: Did they let the cows out?

RW: I don’t know? Let them out to graze?

PA: Before they were slaughtered.

RW: We can come up here and have a look at this bit, and then we’ll go around that way. Because if you go… I think it’s the other nice thing about it is that if you go round that way to try and pick it up it’s quite a while before you meet it again, or see it. And it’s similar going around that way as well - there’s a little view point by St Basil’s where you can see a little bit of it. And then it’s gone again.

PA: I do like these little houses.

RW: Yes, I like all the odd houses they’ve built in. Roofs underneath roofs.

PA: And you see this in err… somewhere over there in the other viaduct, all these pods.

RW: Yeah, we’ll see those. They look really odd, those ones. Me and Bob [Ghosh] were trying to figure out what this bit with the pillars was for.

PA: Reinforcement?

RW: We were guessing that is was done at the same time because the arches fit it, it doesn’t look like a thing that was added in afterwards.

PA: What, the metal pillars?

RW: Yeah.

PA: I think that’s where it collapsed and they’ve had to…

RW: You reckon?

PA: Yeah, I think it collapsed, or at least it weakened.

RW: But would that have been whilst it was being built?

PA: No, that’s contemporary, it’s recent because you’ve got newer bricks underneath, so I think all that area was damaged or something bashed into it and then they had to replace it, and rather than replace it brick…

RW: A hefty job.

PA: That’s the thing I suppose. It had value. I’m guessing - it’s all guesswork, obviously - but I guess this area had financial value and was worth keeping it and keeping it running. And they couldn’t just leave a gap in the structure.

RW: No, and a pile of bricks.

PA: So either it all had to go, or they had to reinforce it. So maybe it was when it was being used a sidings? I wouldn’t say that was at the time of being built, I’d say that was more recent. There’s a railway, if you get close to the Bullring car park area, the big archway, the back entrance into the Bullring car park near the Friends of the Earth cafe. A road down from there they’ve had to replace part of the bridge, and they replaced it with just metal bridging, so it’s… that reminds me of that a little bit.

RW: I do like that, though, that’s two people seeing the same thing and coming to the opposite conclusion. It’s great. That’s how these sort of stories, I think, start.

PA: I see that as a bodge.

RW: It kind of looks like a bodge but…

PA: It’s a later… and the brickworks different. I worked very briefly at the Custard Factory and there was a thing were a train derailed and bashed into the wall, and you can see at the top the bricks are different - they’re cleaner - and a funny story behind it, somebody had parked underneath it and it said ‘no parking’ so there’s this no parking thing and this car just crushed, literally flattened.

RW: And that’s why you don’t park there.

PA: There was almost nothing left of the car, you could just see wheels.

RW: There was no-one in it was there?

PA: No.

RW: Good.

PA: ‘Don’t park here or we’ll literally drop a ton of bricks on you.’

RW: This is the bit where you just get a little, just a little view of it, with the barb-wire.

PA: But what’s interesting is when they fixed it they - because that one is a working railway - you can see how the bricks have changed, so you can start mapping or plotting where there’s been repairs and how old those repairs are based on the colouration of the blue bricks. Even on that one you’ve got some.

RW: There are patches. It could just be repointing?

PA: Could be. Repairs. RW. We’ll go up here. I don’t know if you had a route in mind or whether you’ve just left it…

PA: It’s entirely up to you. Like I say, I normally I cross it going to different places.

RW: Because I’ve been going back and forth on this for while so you get trapped in a route that you think is - that’s the route.

PA: It’s quite hard to walk it.

RW: It is.

PA: When you sent this I thinking ‘well how are you going to do that?’

RW: Originally I would go straight up there and round that way but I was walking it with Trevor [Pitt] at the end of last year and we found another bit through that way going down Hack Street and through the, is it a Custard Factory owned car park?

PA: The one with ‘Forward’ on it?

RW: Yes. And you can go through there, so you end up zig-zagging underneath three arches, which is a lot nicer than going round. So each time you do it you find new things, little bits.

PA: Look at this bit here, there’s about three different… it’s like some sort of ghost building there.

RW: That weird arch on the right - and on the left, there’s another one.

PA: Doorways, at least two floors, or three possibly. Yeah, bolted on. And entrance there and then you just brick those up afterwards. And some metal remnants - some sort of engine? Extractor fan?

RW: I think it’s the end of a pipe? There’s a valve on it.

PA: And they’ve left it there. And people just park there cars under it?

RW: Perfectly safe.

PA: A hunk of rusty metal just above the back of your car. I wonder who inspects them? I suppose it’s down to whoever owns that bit of land? It’s their job to keep it. The proper railway bridges,they’re inspected all the time because the trains go over them. But who inspects this? Who makes sure it isn’t just going to fall?

RW: They must have some sort of schedule. You’d hope.

PA: Yeah, but then this is Digbeth. Who knows?

RW: Me and Bob were admiring the twist on these arches. It’s really nice.

PA: Those marks are to do with maintenance - might be some code for… maybe they’re ‘I’s?

RW: That’s what I was thinking, are they ‘H’s of ‘I’s? I don’t know what they mean.

PA: This stuff on the bricks, it almost looks alive, like moss, but it’s almost like rock. Is it organic or is it just crystalline? It looks like moss but it doesn’t… it feels like…

RW: It feels like sediment…

PA: Or stone.

RW: It’s just been growing - or not growing but accumulating.

PA: It’s extruded from the brickwork over the years. The detail on these things is really… it’s something that interests me a bit - you’ve got this massive thing and then get up really close to them.

RW: I don’t think we can see… can we see the other end of that… I don’t think we get a very good view. Maybe from the other side? Yeah, it’s just got a crappy asbestos roof. So the other side has that lovely brick end-fill on that arch, and then this side is just a crappy shed. Which is a shame. And then there’s that one with windows in it still. ‘Gates in Constant Use’.

PA: Because you wouldn’t believe it otherwise.

RW: I think actually that was open at the end of last year when me and Trevor walked through. Or did we just stick our heads in this hole? This is where someone appears with a shotgun.

PA: ‘Please do not park near gates and leave adequate space for moving vehicles coming in and out. Any driver that does will do so at their own risk.’ It’s not that you’ll get it the way, it’s ‘we’ll knock you out of the way.’

RW: ‘We’ll just crunch you up.’ One of my questions was going to be ‘what would you like to see happen to the Viaduct? But you’ve already answered that at the beginning, which was ‘nothing.’

PA: Yes, leave it alone. But then that’s Digbeth in general. I have this slightly strange relationship with Digbeth in that I like the fact that it’s been left. More ghost signs.

RW: There is a guy in there… or is that one? One of these buildings… there’s a guy who has a little machine shop under there. Either in that one or that one. Me and Trevor spoke to him.

PA: It’s this thing that like the Jewellery Quarter’s based on jewellery so there’s money there already, it’s this identifiable industry, where-as Digbeth has just been this sort of warehousing and light industrial, metal bashing or processing… it’s a bit like Southwark in London, it’s a place where stuff comes before it goes somewhere else. And they’ve tried to redevelop it, there were big plans in the 2000s - big city plans regenerating Digbeth and then it all just collapsed with the financial crisis, and the Custard Factory has taken, what is it - 25-30 years to get to this point, nearly being the… I like the fact that Digbeth is this stubborn old fucker that refuses to do what it’s told. Brindleyplace was just fine, it was ‘oh, just demolish me and build all this new stuff.’ Digbeth? ‘Nope. It’s not gonna happen, mate.’

RW: I’ve done a few projects looking at regeneration - or that were involved as part of regeneration projects and it sometimes sounds like ‘we’re doing it because it’s what you should do, you should regenerate.’ And you get all these things thrust upon the landscape and built up that have all of these buzzwords and slogans attached to them…

PA: ‘Mixed use, city-living…’ I love the fact that when I take people on the walks we start at Moor Street Station and wind up round the Custard Factory and immediately… well, you come out of Moor Street and you’ve got the Bullring on the side and the Palisades and stuff, and then you go down towards that derelict pub, and now we’re spitting distance from the largest shopping centre in Europe. And look at it? And then we go down to the Polish centre and there’s the stray cats and all this and it’s like ‘look, here we are, we’re in this sort of environment.’ And I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense for a city because this area should be really financially wealthy, or this land should be worth way more than it actually is. And maybe that’s what stalled the regeneration, the people who own the properties just waiting for that inevitability of wealthy land-owners coming along and buying it up. And it’s never going to happen. So it’s just stuck in this…

RW: I did a research project in West Bromwich a couple of years back where they were… after they’d levelled this massive patch of land to build Europe’s largest Tesco. So we had all the plans to look at, and we’re looking at West Bromwich and this land and they were the same size! The town and the Tesco were the same size - there where other shops and things in this complex. I’m not sure that’s what regeneration really is?

PA: No…

RW: It might bring money and jobs but it…

PA: I think Digbeth’s stuck because everyone’s expecting this money to come in and they’re just waiting, and so it’s in this limbo.

RW: And if it does, is it going to be the same sort of thing where they flatten massive areas of land and then build another Bullring?

PA: If it was out in Longbridge though they’d just demolish it and it wouldn’t matter if it was left, it would be cheaper to begin with anyway, but because it’s here they’re waiting for the City Centre-type property values to arrive, and they’re not going to arrive - it’s a chicken/egg thing. I think we’re stuck in this limbo of ‘you can’t change until the price goes up…’

RW: But the price won’t go up while it’s like this.

PA: So that’s why people are just… you’ve got this slightly rundown old building being used for taxi repairs and very short let stuff and no-one’s going to establish themselves here. The Custard Factory do, but that’s because Bennie Grey is a stubborn old fucker who won’t do what he’s told - and that’s a compliment. Or at least he’s playing a long game, and it’s a very long game. I mean, this place could be amazing - well, I say amazing - this place could be the Jewellery Quarter, and that’s what people in those positions are expecting. But the Jewellery Quarter’s here, Digbeth is here, we’re the same distance, the same history, the same types of buildings.

RW: I think this is the bit that’s owned by…

PA: Rainbow?

RW: Possibly Rainbow I think. And they hold gigs and club nights and stuff.

PA: This is what I’d heard, that they’d got a licence to go up there and put shipping crates with stairs to go up to the top. There was a thing on their Facebook page last year about it but it never came to anything. But I’ve learned not to listen too hard to the ravings of pub landlords. They’re good people but they’re slightly in their own little world. This is nice.

RW: These little arches in the big arches are rather nice things as well. Some are bricked up, some are not. More of those ‘H’ symbols.

PA: Maybe it’s something where they - not tap on it - but measure it for… put some sort of sonic thing through it to check it’s stable?

RW: And ‘H’ means ‘hmmmmm’.

PA: ‘Hmmm, probably alright’. And that used to have some roofing built in.

RW: Yeah, they’ve flashed in something, and then they’ve taken it out again.

PA: A brief history of security cameras?

RW: Yes. It is isn’t it?

PA: And these signs that were once really important but are no longer relevant, but they leave them up there. So you have to figure out which ones are important and which ones aren’t. So ‘Bar’…

RW: ‘Bar’ is now important. The ‘Stand well clear of lorries’ is probably not?

PA: No. But you have to read it…

RW: …depending on what the situation is. There’s an ice cream van over there?

PA: It’s probably a bar.

RW: Probably.

PA: That’s pretty hardcore. Is it to hold that up?

RW: I’m guessing it’s that as it doesn’t have a wind post. Makes sure it doesn’t fall over.

PA: There was a previous one here.

RW: I like how it feels pretty constant.

PA: How do you mean ‘constant’?

RW: I like how when… especially that last bit where you zigzag through about three arches, and you just see the same thing even though it’s not the same bit each time. I find it quite reassuring - ‘there it is again’.

PA: And it’s got a sort of pre-fab feel about it.

RW: As I don’t live here this has become how I navigate around it - around this bit of Birmingham. I get off the coach at the coach station and I can see that line running up to Moor Street, and I know that if I get to that and follow it down I’ll get to this one. I don’t have to know any street names I just make my way across the arch. I love that bit as well, it’s really nice. They shouldn’t get rid of that.

PA: It takes them a long time bed in.

RW: I like this bit in between the two viaducts.

PA: This is where the entrance to the Rainbow Warehouse venue is. They have a smoking area underneath the archway. Or at least they did last time I was here. I’m pretty sure they close off this road as well.

RW: They do. I was here when they were setting something up and they’d just fenced the whole thing off with those galvanized barriers.

PA: That’s become another bin.

RW: Loads of stuff chucked in. I keep seeing these now, as well. When I go to other places, I’ve sort of hyper-sensitized myself to it in the same way that people have ignored it. I’m now seeing arches everywhere. I’ll go to another town and see a viaduct and I’ll be trying to see where it goes and whether its used or not. It becomes slightly obsessive.

PA: Have you looked at it on the Apple Maps?

RW: On Street View?

PA: No, the Apple one, not Google. It has a 3D view and you can get a real sense of height.

RW: I think I did.

PA: That one’s got a number.

RW: Which must continue, I’d imagine?

PA: I think it’s just for this bit?

RW: Is it? I always imaged that once we’d got to there, that’s 42… that’s 43…

PA: I guess these are… this is a span, where-as that’s a…

RW: It’s a span.

PA: Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

RW: But what are they for?

PA: Just so they can say ‘oop, there’s a problem with span 38, can you come and fix it’.

RW: So that’s why I’m wondering if those continue, so you can still identify…

PA: Then they become bridges…

RW: …or do they just do it by the road name, or the plot? I don’t think it has… no that’s 42, and then there’s nothing.

PA: Everything has a number though. Every lamppost has a number…

RW: That’s number 1.

PA: I wonder if that’s the first lamppost in Birmingham?

RW: Probably the first one on this street.

PA: Something I’d like to get hold of is some sort of record of all of the street furniture - there’s a big database of street furniture, so every electric box, lamppost and manhole cover, they’re all recorded somewhere.

RW: What would you do with it?

PA: I don’t know, just sort of stare at it. I’d probably just draw connections. I was thinking about sewers last year, about how we’ve got the road network and we think of the City as based around the road network. Well then you can have the canal network, and if you look at the map of the canals in Birmingham without any roads it gives you this completely different sense of an areas importance and ways of navigating it. So I thought ‘what about the hidden things like sewers and electrical conduits and if you could have big sewers and little sewers and get that sense of ‘do they match the roads, where do they veer away?’ How does the electricity move around the City, how does the gas move around the City? It probably fits the road network, but it might not? And it’s those hidden patterns that are… that we don’t use but somebody in that industry will use. So who ever is in charge of streetlamps will have a sense of this map of the City which is quite different to somebody who is in charge of traffic management. Where are the areas of congestion for electricity?

RW: And the internet, as well, there’s a similar thing. I remember a guy I work for was having a lot of trouble with his at four-five o’clock every afternoon, it would get really slow, and apparently it was to do with a certain hub that serves that area that isn’t powerful enough to serve all of the people who want to download stuff. And there was nothing they could do about it until they install some other thing, so again there’s this network of things that is completely different to how we look at the world.

PA: I noticed this working from home, we both work online at home and we have fine internet during the day, but at about six o’clock it all slows down…

RW: Everyone gets home from work, kids get home from school…

PA: And in the evenings everyone’s streaming stuff like Netflix, and I think we noticed when Netflix and iPlayer kicked and people started getting internet enabled TVs because our internet just went ‘thum!’ until they upgraded it.

RW: So they must get the same sort of map of physical locations where the cables are more… I don’t know, more of them? More traffic.

PA: Just a slight tangent, but did you hear about this erm… you know the phenomena of when the adverts come on or when Eastenders finishes…

RW: Kettles. Yes.

PA: And how they deal with it.

RW: I heard something about that.

PA: Excess energy is used to pump water up a hill, in Wales, up a mountain, and then when they need it…

RW: … they let it go and comes down produces more power…

PA: So this reservoir atop a mountain is effectively a battery.

RW: It’s brilliant.

PA: And there’s this guy who’s job it is to watch Eastenders…

RW: … what a terrible job…

PA: This is the fascinating thing, he watches these popular programmes so the moment when the credits roll…

RW: … he has to push the button…

PA: … because they’re not always… the times that he’s given… there might be slight delay.

RW: It’s got to be very precise.

PA: He has to wait until the credits and then ‘go!’

RW: Kettles on.

PA: And he presses this button and tons of water come pouring out of this reservior, and everyone can make a cup of tea.

RW: I look at this as a… how you’re saying about how street furniture will have a different map, and I’m quite intrigued by how this has no effect, yet a very big effect, on how Digbeth is laid out. It seems to me that it’s not… not necessarily not taken into account, but it’s kind of… it’s just there so we’ll build…

PA: Build around it.

RW: We’ll just build our thing here and around it and…

PA: It’s like a river?

RW: It’s become a completely immovable…

PA: Have you thought about the canals in a similar way? The canals are lower down but there’s that sense of this canal that kind of butts up alongside the railway, follows the roads, and you can’t really build over it, you can’t build under it. There’s a great area in a bit of Stirchley, where I live in south Birmingham, where the railway line and the canal line meet around Bournville, actually it’s way before then, but there’s this particular point - most of the way the butted up against each-other but then they just slightly split off, and they very slowly go off like this. And there’s this area for about a mile where the land is pretty useless because you can’t go over the railway and you can’t go over the canal, so it’s like this industrial estate where to get to places you have to drive for miles until eventually you get to the warehouse you’re looking for. You couldn’t live down there, it’d be awful, you’d have to drive a mile out of the City just to get back in again. It’s the kind of dead zones that are enforced by these monolithic things.

RW: I think it’s here, it’s underneath this sign. ‘Bordesley Cattle Station’.

PA: Bordesley Cattle Station?

RW: It’s underneath the advert for self-storage, or something.

PA: Yeah. Bordesley Station itself is over there? That’s fascinating.

RW: Yes. I’ve not been up there yet, it always closed - it opens at the weekend doesn’t it?

PA: When there are football matches.

RW: I heard there was only one train, which is some kind of requirement for keeping it open - they have to run a train on it.

PA: I thought it was for the Blue’s ground? So it’s a train station for football fans to use when there’s a match.

RW: Again, strange stories get told…

PA: Sometimes you can see a little bit up. There’s this spooky, damp entrance up the stairs.

RW: Yeah, the view through that gate is quite grim. Yes, ‘Self Store Containers’ covers the Cattle Station sign.

PA: And that’s the end.

RW: Yes, that’s the start of it… is that open?

PA: There’s a big fat gate at the top.

RW: I’ve never seen that one open though? Exciting.

PA: Might be able to get halfway up.

RW: Oh, I’m in luck! This is where we get locked in. Does that mean that there’s a train coming? You can’t see much. It’s over there somewhere. You can’t really see it?

PA: No, it’s a shame. You can’t make it out at all?

RW: It’s the other side of that fence… there’s a tree sticking up. In front of that big, square, black building. With the white border round it.

PA: Yes.

RW: I think that’s the end of it, isn’t it.

PA: You can see the greenery that’s behind those bushes… is the viaduct. This church is quite fascinating, it’s fascinating the things people ignore - it’s right on the ring road so millions of people drive past it, and it’s massive, a monolithic big thing but if you ask most people about it they won’t have a clue ‘that big church on the ring road, what?’ It just sort of vanishes. It’s not used as a church, it’s used as a - I’m not sure if it’s the offices of a homeless charity or if it’s actually used as a homeless shelter, but it’s definitely a homeless charity. And should be know, it’s on hill, it’s high, but nobody realises it’s there. It’s just vanished.

RW: Right.

PA: Any final words now we’ve gone a bit quite?

RW: Well, that’s the route - that’s the street-level walking the Viaduct, and it’s… it’s an odd thing, I think.

PA: It’s sort of exciting and mundane at the same time.

RW: There’s something mildly depressing, in a way, about it.

PA: I don’t know if it’s depressing?

RW: What we were saying about the whole idea of regeneration and nice new things being there and the fact that it’s a load of old lean-tos and crumbling things. There’s a certain charm to that but at the same time I find it quite sad. That it’s all a bit uncared for.

PA: I had somebody on a walk once… actually I’ve got two examples of older people on walks - like 60-odd, probably 70 actually. And the first one, he was really enjoying it because he grew up here and was ‘oh this is amazing, I used to run around at the canals’ and he was telling me all these stories about being chased off the canals by the police because they were effectively industrial infrastructure and they didn’t want them damaged, so there were police policing the canals, which is just surreal. And he had a great time. And this other guy who found the whole thing really depressing because this was his city and it was all just being left to rot and stuff, and I found that one quite hard to deal with, I was thinking ‘this is interesting to me’ and it kind of challenges… I talked to Ben Waddington about it… when we’re taking people on tours - is it some kind of class tourism? It’s something to be aware of. And I think what we concluded, or what I got from that, was that this idea of you not judging it, you’re just showing it to people and they can make their own judgements, and just trying to open it up and say ‘this is here, decide what you want’. I do have this thing of on the one hand I like the fact that it’s all grotty, but I also accept that people have to work and live here and they want a post office, and they want public toilets, and a decent shop.

RW: A train? Not stopping…

PA: And that tension’s there for me. But then I suppose people who live in the countryside have the same feeling - we like a nice old rusty shed.

RW: You don’t want some modern building here…

PA: When actually what they want is a modern, stainless steel building and the equipment to farm effectively and efficiently, but what we want is something out of the chocolate box…

RW: … story book thing.

PA: I remember when I was living on the Isle of Wight for a few months, I was working on a farm, and there was this village nearby and ambulance went through and I was seriously shocked that it was a modern ambulance. I was expecting it to be one those old… like something out of ‘Heartbeat’ or something, with somebody rattling a bell, and it was like ‘woah, oh shit yeah, I’m in the twenty-first century!’ And there is - why shouldn’t there be that stuff - why shouldn’t this place be cleaned up and modern? But then, there’s a whole other area about what cities should be and Birmingham’s always had this… whenever people moan about new buildings or knocking down old buildings we say ‘well, it’s Birmingham’s way’. I mean, I like the old buildings and I feel sad when they go but Birmingham’s slogan is ‘Forward’. Birmingham’s history is the Victorians knocked down the Georgian buildings, the post-war knocked down the Victorian buildings, now we’re knocking down the post-war buildings. It’s what we do. We don’t look back, we don’t think about… we don’t worry about the heritage of this stuff, as much as the functionality of it. It’s… you know, when you clear the slums they weren’t worried about the communities they were worried about the cleanliness and the functionality of giving people somewhere nice to live. And that was a big tragedy for the Irish community, it split them up and sent them out, but, they got nicer houses? It’s that sort of double-edged thing. But on a personal level I like the fact that there’s this weird dead zone right next to the city centre - that you can get off the train at New Street and in ten minutes you’re in this place that doesn’t make any sense.

RW: That’s exactly how I felt.

PA: I don’t want it to go. I don’t want it to become another Jewellery Quarter or another Brindleyplace.

RW: I think that’s the thing, it’s that it is nice to see how things - because things do change anyway - but it’s quite nice to see how they change on a more organic way as apposed to a developer coming in and building a big thing.

PA: The last fifty-odd years - the post-war history of Digbeth - is these tiny incremental changes, and little things here and little things there. We’ve seen it today walking past - ‘oh, that.. six months ago this was this, and that was that’ but it’s so small that it doesn’t… there’s nobody really dominant, although on Floodgate street maybe the Custard Factory’s dominant, but even then it’s hardly a dent. Anyway, I can feel myself getting on to my soapbox.

RW: OK, let’s leave it there. Brilliant.

Imperica interview

As part of speaking at Bees In A Tin about my photo walks, I was interviewed along with Holly Gramazio for Imperica, an online magazines for digital arts and stuff. I feared I was rambling a load of old nonsense but it all came out rather well, I think. Thanks to Paul Squires for enabling coherence.

Here are my unedited answers to Paul’s original questions:

Please introduce your forthcoming talk at Bees in a Tin.

My talk is about the Photo Walks I have been running in Digbeth for the last two years, how they started as a taster for my photography classes and evolved into an artwork in themselves. In mid 2013 I got an ACE G4A grant to research and develop them and at Bees I’ll be presenting my findings, getting feedback from my peers and outlining the future of this endeavour.

You both appear to share a theme – about the understanding of place, and the democratisation of that understanding. What is your own journey in terms of building your own senses of place?

As a child I was introduced to photography by my father who gave me a pretty decent old SLR film camera. I would shoot a roll, pay to get it developed and wind up with 36 crappy photos. Eventually I gave up on photography.

In 2000 I moved to London and started blogging. Around 2002 I bought, as a joke, a tiny L’Espion keyring camera that that some bloggers I knew had found. This took 20 photos at very low resolution but would fit in my jeans pocket. I took it everywhere and documented my life living in London. http://peteashton.com/snapshots/

As the price of digital cameras dropped I bought a cheap compact and continued to take photos. The low zero cost of making pictures and the ability to immediately review and delete was revolutionary and my interest in photography blossomed. In 2003 I moved to Birmingham and continued blogging and taking photographs for my blog. Flickr started in 2004 which gave me a venue for my photos that was based on community and this feedback, alongside my cash-poor / time-rich lifestyle, saw my photography improve. I bought a better camera and started calling myself a photographer.

Flickr was important not just for the website but for the Birmingham group that emerged on there. This group started documenting the city both autonomously and through monthly meetups which I initiated (and which still continue today though I am no longer involved). It was notable that Flickr’s success coincided with the price of DSLRs first dropping to affordable levels. I though I was special with my D70s but suddenly they were everywhere. People had cameras which could take technically decent digital photos and were looking for something to do with them.

Alongside Flickr I was also involved in the nascent Birmingham blogging community, starting the Created in Birmingham blog http://www.createdinbirmingham.com in 2007 and becoming friends with Jon Bounds of Birmingham It’s Not Shit http://www.birminghamitsnotshit.co.uk . The notion of “hyperlocal blogging” gained popularity around 2010 and we all got very interested in thinking about place and concept of “local”. I also helped the Digbeth.org blog to start which cemented my interest in the area.

Related to this, I moved around a lot as a child and young adult. I am currently in my 28th home and it feels odd to have been here for four years. I do not have a “home town” and subsequently get very attached to wherever I am living. When in London I got obsessed with the City where I worked in a bookshop. A decade into living in Birmingham my obsession with the nature of this city is at times embarrassing.

How has the concept of ‘public space’ changed for you – in terms of what constitutes it and the impacts on its definition by such forces as privatised public space (eg shopping centres)?

As a photographer one immediately bumps into the private/public space issue. While I haven’t suffered harassment issues like some I have been asked to stop taking photos in privately owned areas. I tend to be pretty good at spotting these and avoiding problems. I have spent some time as a security guard and know how soul-crushingly boring the job can be. Security guards will do anything to alleviate the tedium of policing their patch and any infraction will be jumped on. They’re not malicious, just bored, and appreciating this can go a long way.

I do enjoy pointing out to people on my walks that when we go past, say, the Bull Ring or around Brindley Place that we’re on private land and can be ejected at the whim of the owners. People are quite surprised that so much space through which they have nominal access has been sold by Birmingham City Council to private developers. The Bull Ring staff have a reputation for cracking down on photographers but, to be fair, it’s mostly just tripods they don’t like.

Like most things, the confrontational aspect is rare and relatively unimportant. What’s crucial is how this privatisation is continuing without any public awareness. Our delightful brutalist library is about to be demolished and the land sold to Argent. Such is life.

But other than adding a political edge to my walks it doesn’t overly affect my work. I tend to concentrate on the edges and neglected areas where ownership is fuzzy and not overly policed. Even somewhere like under Spaghetti Junction, a potential terrorism target chock full of surveillance, is more open that you’d imagine. You can get right under and feel the traffic vibrating through the pillars. Doing the same under the Bull Ring without proper clearance would be near impossible.

I suppose my interest in place reflects my interest in culture. Once something has been fully co-opted by the “mainstream” my interest in it is diminished. So when the city sells a piece of prime real estate to a corporation for a fraction of its market value and they blandify it I simply move on. How does the appreciation of a given space change over time? How is a new appreciation sought, and how do your own views help to build a re-interpretation of what public space is or could be? I’m a big fan of returning to the same place over time and it always disappoints me that when someone has come on one of my routes they don’t feel the need to come on it again. Over-enthusiastic planners aside, cities don’t suddenly change. It’s a gradual process of entropy, decay, maintenance and redevelopment. Every time I walk through Birmingham I see a new building, or a changed building. Something burns down, somewhere else is given a new lease of life. Every day life happens in the city and it leaves a mark. These marks accumulate and the story of the city is told.

So revisiting a given space is more than seeing the same place over and over. It’s a different place each time. And my interpretation of it is unique to me. There are a million Birminghams, one of each person who lives here, not to mention all those who visit. Each is as valid as the other. We make our own sense of place. I guess this is why private ownership of apparently public spaces, while interesting, doesn’t overly concern me. We make the city in our own way, regardless of what the “owners” want. Dhruva Mistry’s fountain-sculpture The River isn’t called The River. It’s called The Floozie in the Jacuzzi and there’s nothing Mistry can do about it.

I don’t know how my own views help to build a re-interpretation of what public space is or could be. I guess I show people stuff and encourage their idea of Birmingham to grow and maybe the aggregate of the million Birminghams changes. I dunno.

Do you think that public authorities still don’t really understand the potential of public space and how to work with it and make it sustainable? How can we help to ensure that projects such as The Public don’t happen again?

I’m not sure I understand the potential of public space. I’m not sure what a “public space” is, to be honest. Working with a public space sounds a lot like putting a top-down use instruction on it, whereas my local big park seems to do fairly well with a giant lawn and some trees around a lake. I think people are a lot more creative and inventive than they are given credit for, or even imagine they can be themselves, and maybe what’s needed is to encourage that natural curiosity and inventiveness rather than using terms like “potential”. I may be overthinking this.

I don’t think you can extrapolate any lessons from The Public. It was a massive millennial clusterfuck from the outset that no-one can take the full blame for. Put it down to Blairite hubris, maybe? That’s not to detract from the great things Ian Danby and his team did in the final years, mind. But the building itself should never have happened. How has the evolution of the concept of play and exploration run alongside the evolution of the concept of public space?

I genuinely have no idea!

Appendix 3

The Arts Council Grant for the Arts application, budget and activity report.

The Grant for the Arts application

If you’ve not seen one of these before, it might read a little strangely. Each paragraph is addressing a question or a point in the How To Apply notes and it doesn’t lend itself to beautiful flowing text. It’s actually a little frustrating, being given the illusion of a 2,000 word space when what they really want is a series of short answers. The language is also odd in places, especially for me, making assertions and statements that while accurate and truthful I wouldn’t be comfortable with in conversation. But it is what it is.

Finally, while it’s very definite and confident, you’ll notice the specifics don’t bear much relation to what actually happens. Given the whole process was about research and development it’s hopefully not unreasonable for everything to change. That said, at time of writing I haven’t submitted the final report to the Arts Council yet…

There are five headings: You and your work, How the public engage with your work, Making it happen, Finance, Evaluation.


You and your work

I plan to develop a programme of photographic events in Birmingham and a platform for future work.

The programme will consist of four participatory events leading groups on photographic explorations of the Digbeth district of Birmingham, which I have been photographing since 2006. While these will likely evolve – following research into street photography, walking tour guides, city planning, architecture, urban exploration, flaneurism and history – I have devised four initial frameworks:

  1. The Tour Guide As Filter. What does it mean to be a guide? How does a guide inform perception of the city through route and narration? How can this be distributed among participants? What can we learn from storytelling, collaborative and didactic? How can the tensions between the guide and the guided be explored?
  2. Expanding The Treasure Hunt. Can the hackneyed model of participants photographing a list of subjects be made fresh? How can exploration be narrated and guided through making connections, building new maps and creating new realities?
  3. Photo Manipulation Through Sense. Can photographs be “manipulated” by altering other senses? Using audio triggered in specific locations, participants experience different sounds to explore how this affects their visual perception.
  4. Storytelling. Participants are encouraged to build their own narrative of the area through ten photographs. Workshopped after the walk and exhibited online.

Documentation of the work will be online, accessible through desktop, mobile and ebook platforms.

I have been practising as an artist for nearly a decade with no formal training. I studied philosophy at Birmingham University in the 1990s. My creative background is in fanzines, DIY media, blogging and photography, which I currently document on art-pete.com. In 2007 I started the award-winning Created in Birmingham weblog, putting connecting with artists and arts organisations in the city. I’ve built professional relationships with a number of these as a digital/social media consultant, developing strategies for engagement to increase both virtual audiences and venue footfall. See attached CV.

In January 2012 I started Photo School with Matt Murtagh, running photography classes and events which combine technical skills and artistic development.

This ACE funded phase will allow me to develop my practice at a pivotal time in my career, developing four new participatory artworks which interrogate photography as a participatory experience in ways I’ve been unable to explore due to work commitments. The phase will also enable me to consolidate my practice online with a view to increasing my artistic profile and securing opportunities to create new work. Curator Karen Newman has agreed to mentor me throughout this process, offering production and curatorial advice and expertise.

I continue to maintain an interest in digital tools and online engagement and am developing a database-driven Birmingham Art Map smartphone app with digital agency Substrakt utilising their Nymbol CMS. The research undertaken for this project will contribute to my thinking and research in relation to this application, exploring digital mediation and photography.

Activity aims:

  1. Develop and deliver four new artist-led participatory walks, exploring walking tours, street photography, flaneurism and urban exploration.
  2. Research, including discussions with peers, historians, academics, practitioners and others, and document in an interactive blog.
  3. Produce a simple PDF “exhibition” to be viewed on smartphones when exploring the area.
  4. Produce documentation of process and results distributed via ebook.
  5. Consolidate my work on art-pete.com.
  6. Lay foundations for new collaborations with arts organisations.

My interest in photography as a collaborative artistic medium began when I founded the Birmingham Flickrmeets community in 2006. The artistic and educational phenomena of many eyes seeing the same thing has always informed my photographic practice.

I have developed an interest in place and identity through blogging about Birmingham since 2006. Taking cues from network structures of services like Twitter I have become fascinated with applying these models to urban communities.

I have been running walks in Digbeth through Photo School for over a year. Initially a low-cost sampler, they’ve hinted at a hybrid of photography workshop, walking tour, flaneurism and performance.

I feel close to unifying my interests in image-making and location with the public’s desire to document photographically their city and I am keen to move beyond the a simple photo walk.

My participatory activities will enable people to engage with their environment in new ways through photography. Technical skills and aesthetic appreciation are developed and social connections made during and after the events.

My personal development will make me a valuable resource for arts organisations. I’ve recently been approached by Birmingham Architecture Festival and Ikon Gallery to adapt my photo walks to their needs.

I consistently share my ideas and process online as an essential part of my process. Everything produced will be available in digital formats and open for feedback.

How the public engage with your work

My photography teaching, through search engine placement, reaches a gender and ethnically diverse group with ages ranging from 15 to 70. Many do not consider themselves to be engaging in “art”. This as my base audience.

Engagement will occur in a number of ways:

  • The walking events themselves, each involving 10-20 people.
  • Online documentation across various platforms including:
  1. Project-specific section of art-pete.com website.
  2. Blog with comments.
  3. Flickr/YouTube for photos and video.
  4. Twitter/Facebook sharing and conversation.
  5. PDF/ebook.
  • Formal engagement with peers through FierceFWD artist development programme (application pending) and related programmes if applicable.

On basic photo walks, participants develop their technical photographic skills, aesthetic appreciation, a deeper awareness and understanding of their city, and gain social connections. I expect these to continue with the new works with the following additional factors:

  1. The experience of being involved with a live artwork.
  2. If the work has a post-walk section, the experience of co-creating a larger work.
  3. Meeting and interacting with historians, artists and local figures.
  4. Exploring how senses other than vision can be used to explore locations; developing awareness of sound, smell, etc.

Marketing engagement will increase. Over the past year marketing has been solely through search engines and word of mouth, supported by a strong web and social media presence for myself and Photo School. I will now add a fresh strand developed through online documentation, a Google Adwords campaign and flyers/posters around Birmingham.

I see the work as building a solid foundation for my work. Future engagement in 2014 and beyond might include: more events consolidating successes and exploring new methods; adoption of works by arts organisations and festivals; developing events in other cities; and the development of a sustainable smartphone app with a local digital agency. My documentation will remain online and will spread through the usual channels to interested parties in a variety of fields.

Local press will be informed of public events and I will use my connections with arts organisations to join their mailings. If opportunities with arts organisations emerge, I will explore synergies. For example, a photography class on Birmingham myths tying in with Ikon’s Shimabuku exhibition in August has been proposed by Head of Learning Simon Taylor.

Making it happen

I have scoped out my areas of interest and research resources. My reading list includes:

  • The Tour Guide - Jonathan R Wynn 0226919064
  • The Practice Of Everyday Life - Michel de Certeau 0520236998
  • Hidden Cities - Moses Gates 9781585429349
  • London Walking - Simon Pope 1841660566
  • BLDGBLOG - Geoff Manaugh 9780811866446

I have identified the following people to approach about my research:

I am also taking regular guidance from my mentor, curator Karen Newman.

I plan to visit major UK cities on at least six occasions to research work done by formal institutions and at grass-roots.

A research trip to Ars Electronica Festival in Linz in September will enable me to consider how my work fits within the international digital arts context, and be an inspiring experience from which to develop future projects.

My schedule, assuming application approved early July:

  • July-August: Research period. Reading; visiting cities; meeting artists, tour guides, urban explorers. Research recorded on project blog enabling peers and interested people to contribute. I am highly conversant with using digital tools in this manner.
  • September: Deliver programme of events. Sales processed using established Photo School systems.
  • October: Analysis of findings; delivery of final documentation. PDF prepared with Apple Pages, ebook with Leanpub.com. Verbal presentation to art community at Fierce FWD sharing event.
  • November: Personal Review. Archive prior work in context of project and establish process for documenting future work on art-pete.com website. I have built countless websites to the standard needed; work will mostly be on copy and hierarchy.
  • November: Close and evaluation to enable a smooth transition to new work in 2014.

Past experience:

Since January 2012 I have run 13 walks and 27 classes through Photo School involving approximately 150 people. I have tools in place to manage, promote and collect feedback from all activities.

I have been blogging since 2000 and was an early adopter of Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and other services. I am skilled in publicly documenting my work and consider working in an interactive, social, open environment essential to my process. I have experimented widely with digital publishing tools and formats from mapping to ebooks, and consult professionally on these matters.

I have been registered self-employed since 2005 and am competent at managing my personal and business finances.

Finance

Along with income from Photo School and digital consultancy I can spend at least one full day a week on this project at £200 per day and maintain my income. The budget provides me with 29 days of activity.

I estimate visiting other cities to witness photographic explorations undertaken there and attending appropriate events will cost £400 in travel and fees. Visiting Ars Electronica festival will cost £400 for travel, entrance and budget accommodation.

I have budgeted £200 for the purchase of research material. I own the technical equipment required (cameras,computers) except for a pocket video camera for video documentation at £150. Other expenses are detailed in this application.

I have raised at least 10% of my requested budget from other sources. Through ticket sales Photo School will pay me a minimum of £500 to run both research walks and the final works. A proposed workshop with Ikon will pay £200. I am also applying to be on the Fierce FWD development programme from the Fierce Festival, which gives a bursary of £250.

A goal of this activity is to consolidate my knowledge and develop my artistic practice. By consolidating my reputation in this area, along with a product I can sell in to organisations, I see my financial position strengthening through 2014.

I shall manage the budget as I manage Photo School’s accounts: depositing funds in a savings account and transferring artist fees and expenses to my current account monthly. Expenses will be budgeted and full accounts kept.

Evaluation

I’m keen that this project leads to greater things so it is important that lessons learned are recorded and evaluated in a manner to enable this. It’s also essential that my peers are able to access and use my experience for their own work. I see the evaluation process as a natural and important complement to the more informal blog.

Quantitative information will include:

  • People at events.
  • Downloads of ebooks/PDFs.
  • Web analytics.
  • Social media metrics.

Qualitative information will include:

  • Questionnaires for participants.
  • Photo/video documentation of events.
  • Formal interviews with key participants.

The evaluation will by available on art-pete.com as part of project archive.


Huge thanks to Karen Newman, my mentor, for her help in writing this. While I did all the legwork she gave valuable feedback and advice on language and buttons to press while ensuring I kept on track.

The Grant for the Arts budget

Income

The Arts Council expects you to raise at least 10% of your budget from other sources. Where my anticipated sources fell through (the Fierce FWD program was postponed and Photo School didn’t bring in the expected revenue for the walks) I found new ones to the total of £808.00.

Source Expected Received
G4A July £7,000.00 £7,000.00
Photo School £500.00 £58.00
FierceFWD £250.00 £0.00
Ikon £200.00 £550.00
We Art B28 £0.00 £125.00
BYOB event £0.00 £75.00

Expenditure

The expenses budget changed as the shape of the project changed. Any remaining monies were put towards the writing of this book.

Overiew Original Budget Revised Budget
Artist Fee - R&D £5,800.00 £5,800.00
Print for Walks £50.00 £0.00
Evaluation writing £100.00 £477.09
Artists Fees - Walks £400.00 £700.00
Travel - walks £50.00 £0.00
Expenses £200.00 £23.65
UK Travel £300.00 £55.00
Event Fees £100.00 £82.75
Research Materials £200.00 £133.88
Ars Electronica £400.00 £376.63
Google Ads £100.00 £0.00
Video Camera £150.00 £159.00
Flyers £100.00 £0.00

The Grant for the Arts activity report and self-evaluation

It would not be an understatement to say this process has been life-changing. I was uncertain as to what it meant to be an “artist” and of my place in the creative community. I now have the confidence and resources to call myself an artist and have a coherent and sustainable plan for the future. The process was at times overwhelming and more fundamental than I anticipated and even a year later I am having trouble evaluating it coherently.

SUMMARY

I did the following:

  • Researched and developed my photo walks
  • Ran a Psychogeography Workshop
  • Ran three new photography walks collaborating with sound artists
  • Personal artistic development
  • Consolidated artistic practice
  • Wrote a book about Collective Photography

I worked with the following artists:

  • Cathy Wade, A3 Project Space
  • Annie Mahtani, SoundKitchen
  • Iain Armstrong, SoundKitchen
  • Sam Underwood, If Wet

I engaged with the following:

  • Number of participants on the three walks: 32
  • Participants at Psychogeography workshop: 5
  • Followers on personal Twitter: 3,500 followers.
  • Photo School Twitter: 400 followers
  • Photo School newsletter: Nov 06, 2013; 418 recipients, 44% opened, 76 visited site.
  • 19 registered downloads of the book so far.

Website stats during November 2013 (delivery time):

  • art-pete.com: 1,165 unique pageviews
  • photo-school.co.uk; 2,114 unique pageviews

My engagement reach on the walks was unsatisfactory. I failed to engage my usual audience through Photo School and resorted to getting friends / peers to come. I speculated this was because I marketed them as “Art” walks, to satisfy the requirements that people be aware they were engaging with an artwork, and didn’t fully understand how off-putting the term “Art” can be. This was an important lesson which I realised in retrospect I already knew from my photography teaching. People won’t pay to learn about, say, composition but when you sneak it in it’s the thing they enjoy the most.

The outcomes were:

  • Development and delivery of participatory art events combining sound and photography.
  • Increased knowledge of subjects relevant to my work.
  • Documentation on art-pete.com and in an ebook.
  • Presentation to peers at the Bees In A Tin event and Birmingham Loves Photographers talk.
  • Visits to festivals in Linz (Ars Electronica), Belgrade (Resonate) and Manchester (Future Everything) as an artist to contextualise my work internationally.
  • Developed artistic practice without commercial pressures.
  • Emerged as a working artist in the region with a clear plan for the next few years.

The project lead directly to the following:

  • Commission from Ikon and Still Walking as part of the Ikon Traces 50th anniversary programme.
  • Development and delivery of new series of photo walks in Birmingham.
  • Development and initial delivery of the Birmingham Camera Obscura project.
  • New work based on the live sonification of images launching in October 2014.

There were three aims: to research the practice of participatory photography walks, to deliver a programme of photography walking events and to develop a platform for future artistic practice.

RESEARCH

I soon realised I had thrown myself in the deep end with the broad research topic of Art Walking. At the time I felt I had failed to achieve my research aims but on reflection I believe it would have been impossible in the time allowed. That said, being in the deep end has given me a deeper understanding of walking-as-art.

I did the following:

  • Attended the Still Walking festival and talked to some of the artists leading walks.
  • Acquired the Walk On exhibition catalogue and researched the exhibiting artists for an overview of Art Walking.
  • Organised a Psychogeography workshop with Cathy Wade in Digbeth to explore the subject.
  • Visited the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol to talk with creative practitioners in this area.
  • Ran an artist walk for the WeArtB38 community arts festival.
  • Ran a workshop / photo walk for Ikon alongside their Hurvin Anderson exhibition.
  • Regularly attended the monthly If Wet salon for sound artists and experimental musicians.

I read numerous books related to the exploration of place including:

  • Psychogeography Pocket Essentials
  • A Field Guide To Getting Lost
  • London: City of Disappearances
  • Scarp
  • How Maps Change Things
  • The Tour Guide
  • The Practice of Everyday Life

Much of this has been documented on art-pete.com and in the eBook.

DELIVERY

Three walks were delivered in November 2013. I decided to collaborate with sound artists to force me to focus my attention and step of my comfort zone and ensure the walks were not like my “normal” walks. This would also develop my skills at collaboration. I chose to collaborate with Annie Mahtani and Iain Armstrong of SoundKitchen, a Birmingham-based artists collective, and Sam Underwood, a West Midlands sound artist and musician. All three are recognised in their field and a few years ahead of me in experience.

SoundKitchen had run a sound walk for the Still Walking festival which was similar in style to my photo walks while being completely different. I wanted to see if we could combine our approaches and media.

I ran two walks with SoundKitchen. The first was an Active Listening tour of key locations in Digbeth with interesting soundscapes. The participants were asked to tune in to the sounds around them and then, mindful of that, take photographs of their surroundings.

The second SoundKitchen walk involved participants listening to a pre-recorded soundtrack while walking a route led by me and taking photos to see if this soundtrack affected their photography in any way.

Sam Underwood co-runs the If Wet salon in Callow End and has an interest in field recordings and augmenting spaces with what he calls “sonic graffiti”. I had long admired his work and wanted to use his approach to augment my own. We focused on small details using contact microphones and stethoscopes to tune into the urban environment, following this up with close-up photographs of the detail in the streets.

Lessons learned:

A double act needs rehearsal. While the walks were well prepared and discussed beforehand they did not always run as smoothly as I would have liked. I should have taken a firmer lead and had a clearer idea of what I wanted the outcomes to be.

Combining the senses of sight and sound is a rich area for exploration which I have starting to bring into my other work. For example, I now run an “active listening” exercise during the Spaghetti Junction photo walk, asking people to imagine the traffic sounds are musical rhythms.

Aftermath:

I was accepted as a speaker at the Bees In A Tin event, a gathering of “people who make or are interested in unique interfaces for the world around them”. I used this as a chance to work through some questions with my peers and to share my findings. My talk was well received and created some new contacts and relationships.

As a sequel to the funded walks I developed a series of walks around the Queensway ring road in central Birmingham, exploring this liminal space where the city is disrupted by a dual carriageway. The walks were cancelled half way through due to lack of bookings and my sense that I wasn’t achieving my artistic aims.

I chaired a panel discussion at the Supersonic Festival for Birmingham Loves Photographers about “Collective Photography” at gigs and festivals, looking at the phenomenon of people taking photos from the audience with their phones, why they do it and whether it’s a problem. This brought together my various ideas about ubiquitous cameras including those developed about street and group photography during this period.

I was asked by the Ikon gallery and the Still Walking festival to run a guided walk as part of Ikon’s 50th anniversary celebrations. This involved visiting the four previous sites of Ikon, three of which no longer exist, and asking walkers to use copies of key artworks from Ikon’s history to “tune” their perception so they might take photographs in a new way. The walk marked the final shift from my being a photographer who dabbles in art to an artist who uses photography.

I was asked to give a talk to the Birmingham Loves Photographers group in September about Looking and Seeing and decided to use my findings about photo walks to talk about group photography. The BLP group was varied with a bias towards “traditional” photographers and was curious and receptive to my ideas while challenging them at times. The talk was followed by a brief dusk walk where we put some of my ideas into practice.

Having been disappointed by the Ars Electronica festival in Linz it was recommended that I go to the Resonate festival in Belgrade which I did under my own steam. This festival was more practitioner led involving visual artists at the cutting edge of computer-driven art, showcasing the technical possibilities and the aesthetic and political issues of those possibilities. The visit was both eye-opening and reassuring, allowing me to bed in many of the things I’d been thinking about over the past year. I also cemented relationships with the Coventry-based digital arts company Ludic Rooms who I travelled and stayed with.

Alongside the formal research and development of the walks I developed a sideline interest in the phenomenon of Selfies, which was getting interesting towards the end of 2013. I produced two films: Typologies of Hypernetworked Vernacular Self-Portraiture and Spectral Songs of the Slitscanned Selfies. Typologies was screened at the Flatpack Film Festival as part of the Magic Cinema strand while Spectral Songs formally started my next project, developing work around the sonification of photographs. This work would not have happened without the space and framework enabled by the funded period.

Throughout the funded period I have continued teaching beginners photography through Photo School. I have noticed my understand of the technical and aesthetic issues has deepened and developed a nuance which, critically, I am better able to communicate to my students. This has led to more satisfied customers and helped secure my financial stability.

I wrote and published a 10,000 word ebook - Collective Photography - about the whole process.

DEVELOPMENT

I have joked that since becoming “an artist” I have the closest thing to a coherent business model than at any time in the past 10 years of freelancing. I am now able to channel all of my skills and ideas, from digital publishing and teaching to theorising about the future of photography, into one coherent platform. Having this stability in focus allows me to develop my business alongside my artistic practice, not in competition with it, making for a more stable financial future.

While I am fairly well known on the Birmingham arts scenes it is mostly as a social media consultant. This process has helped me make the transition to working artist and to shift the relationships I have with local arts organisations in that direction. This has been most obvious in conversations I’ve been having related to the Birmingham Camera Obscura project in which I take the artistic lead.

Having worked from home for the past few years I have started making inroads into the Birmingham artistic community again. I have joined Vivid Project’s Black Hole Club and will be joining the BOM (Birmingham Open Media) community when it opens this Autumn. These will see me collaborating more and being physically based in the creative communities of the city.

The Birmingham Camera Obscura project has been in pre-development during 2014 and looks to be my main source of artistic and financial work for the next few years. Among many other things I’m able to apply lessons and experience from this funded process both as an artist and as a producer.

The Live Sonification of Photographs work is my personal artistic project for the next year, combining a wide range of interests in one artistic vision. This will be premiering at If Wet in October 2014 and will form the basic of applications for residencies in 2015.

Feedback from collaborating artists

SOUNDkitchen, collaborators on first and third walks:

“SOUNDkitchen have been running soundwalks for some time and the opportunity to work with Pete Ashton on his photo walks offered an interesting new dimension. With the listening walk we attempted to readdress the sensory priority of a photographer by putting a strong emphasis on listening to the environment, potentially changing the visual perception of a place or situation. Discussions after the walk suggested that the photographers did indeed find themselves approaching the composition of the images in new ways. The soundtracked walk offered a chance to explore the subliminal effects of sound on the photographer. We found this approach to be very interesting although did feel we would need to run this a few times changing the parameters each time to really see the results! It was a great project to be involved in and working with Pete enabled us to take our practice in new directions and engage with a new audience. Pete was supportive of our ideas and concepts and did everything he could to facilitate our needs. It was a pleasure to be involved and we’ve found a new direction that we would like to continue working in.”

Sam Underwood, collaborator on the second walk:

“Despite having prior experience of leading sound walks and lectures the visual bent of this walk caused me to have to think hard about how I might help to stimulate visual ideas through sound. I was given free reign by Pete and decided to focus on teasing out sounds, through the use of an array of microphones and deep listening. The group were attentive and engaged throughout, and I was pleased with the outcomes. Pete Ashton was on hand throughout on the day but allowed me to direct proceedings. Collaborating with Pete on this caused me pause for thought about “how sounds look”. This has continues to fascinate me.”

Cathy Wade of A3 Project Space, collaborator on the Psychogeography Workshop:

“The workshop bought a new audience to the A3 and gave an opportunity to fully engage and test questions about Psychogeography through live intervention with the environment. One of the elements of Psychogeography I am always keen to question is the enduring myth of the male flaneur who deciphers the environment for a wider audience. This was why I was specifically keen to address issues of Psychogeography with a diverse audience and encourage participation in this (as most of my conversations with this subject are with Fine Art Degree Students).

“These was an ambitious sense of ‘packing it’ in with the workshop, a talk an activity then a walk. Essentially the most engaging element of session was the activity, testing things out, being rather lost as to how to tackle the environment.

“The walk we did through rolling the dice took us down every street we did not want to walk down, it became comical as one turn had the overpowering smell of blood from the abattoir, yet, part way down the street we found a work by Newso that made revealed the secrets that you do not find with everyday walks, The dice somehow rolled us back, (here I’m sure you can enforce human will on dice). We also took images at the same point, throughout the walk, this was fascinating (the images were paired together later) as it showed how the unique experiences regularly captures through mobiles, are actually common and are shared, echoed and repeated again and again.

“What was needed at the end of the session was conversation and exchange, which we did. What we should look for in a future session is a direct activity, an opportunity to take this out into the world then to reflect on it. Essentially the academic framing of the subject was not needed in a short session, and may be better pitched as information that was available in another format or session.”

Thanks

Karen Newman - for being my mentor and guide in more ways than I could have hoped for.

Jenny Duffin - for being young and wise, a rare combination.

Jess Lena - for assisting and reminding me that what I do is pretty weird and special.

Matt Murtagh - for getting me to start Photo School with him which directly led to my deciding to become an artist.

Trevor Pitt - for allowing me to use A3 Project Space for a psychogeograpy workshop.

Nikki Pugh - for showing me that art and tech could be bridged without either losing out.

Antonio Roberts - for having too much energy and enthusiasm.

Simon Taylor and Kate Self at Ikon - for letting me play with their toys and trusting me to deliver.

Ben Waddington - for running the Still Walking festival and bringing inspiring people into my sphere, including himself.

Cathy Wade - for dazzling me with big ideas and it being okay that I don’t completely understand them

and many more I will kick myself for forgetting…