Cameras I own: Konica Hexar AF

Part four in a series. Read parts three, two and one.

Somewhere in Western Australia, 2006

Now here is a camera that is truly close to my heart. When I’m asked the inevitable question (as a visitor looks up at my collection on top of our bookshelf) “which is your favourite?”, my answer is always “the Hexar”. I first became aware of the existence of the Hexar while taking photos at the Meredith music festival with my Canonet—I noticed another photographer with a few vintage cameras, and around his neck was an amazing looking one: like a Leica, but sleeker, more modern, with a neat little LCD showing the shot count on the top. I didn’t manage to speak to him, but my quest had begun.

I found my Hexar my first time in Japan, partly because I knew that I wanted to buy a camera in Japan, and partly because my good friend Pete (who was living there at the time) convinced me (after some single-malt scotch) that this was the one. He was right of course.

Akihabara, Tokyo, 2004

The Konica Hexar is a truly special 35mm rangefinder: it sports an incredibly sharp fixed 35mm f2.0 lens, aperture priority and program settings (or fully manual if you desire), fast and precise autofocus, solid construction. I have heard it called “the perfect street camera” because of it’s fast wide angle and extremely quite operation. Plus it just looks awesome with its sleek lines, sci-fi looking reflective autofocus array and LCD screen.

ACCA, Melbourne, 2006

I bought the later (1997) model “Silver” edition, which (apparently) comes minus the Hexar’s most lauded feature: Silent Mode. Silent Mode slows down the motorised film advance and autofocus to whisper quiet, and combined with the very quiet leaf shutter turns the Hexar into one of the quietest motorised film cameras around. Now, I said “apparently” because of a fact that was pointed out to me by Pete: the missing feature is just a software setting—it is actually possible to override it and restore Silent Mode to the camera by performing a complex sequence of button presses (which I managed to do, after a few aborted attempts). Pete explained this fact to a salesman at Map Camera, and it was listening to this conversation that I first learned about the existence of “Japanese” words that are strangely warped English words: “Onnu-offu” (on-off switch), “cunningu” (cheat, as in “cunning”).


Kyoto, 2004

But I digress. I continued to use this camera right up until I bought my Lumix GF-1, as none of my other digital cameras could do quite what the Hexar did (and the Lumix is still louder than the Hexar). There was something about the combination of size, speed and lens quality (I still think it has the best lens of any camera that I own) that made it, for me, perfect. The Hexar is retired now (the cost of film is sadly not worth it anymore), and I have managed to damage the hotshoe (now held in place with gaffer tape).

I took some of my favourite film shots with this camera over the years, and I am still a little sorry that it just sits gathering dust now. A note to all digital camera manufacturers: I’m still looking for a true digital replacement for the Hexar, so when you release one, I’ll happily be your first customer.

Documentation, not things.

What if the video archive isn’t a ‘video archive’, but an archive of ‘events that are recorded on the videos’? What is the difference? The current Circus Oz video archive is quite literal: a cupboard full of VHS and Mini-DV tapes. But once they are digitised at stored ‘in the cloud’ (as it were), it won’t be the video-object that exists in the archive (to the extent that we can say that digital objects ‘exist’ in any real sense), what will exist in the archive is a subjective record of a performance. Or less academically: you aren’t watching ‘videos’ anymore, you are watching a certain record of someone’s perspective of an event.

Here’s how it works: There is a performance. This is a real event, verifiable, happening in the world. The events of the performance are captured on video (in some format). This video is transcoded into a series of digital copies: one ‘archive quality’ (theoretically lossless), one ‘working copy’ (optimised for web streaming) for general access, others, probably stored in the nebulous cloud. Other data is associated with this copy (archive metadata, descriptions, images). Together these make up a record of a performance: a representation of the event. Documentation, not things.

How does this change the way of thinking about a video archive and archive practice? Is it because we are not concerned with preserving objects but with preserving perspectives?

In “the serendipity of the unexpected, or why a copy is not an edition”, Sarah Werner notes a problem with the digital archiving of manuscripts: that the process of digitising a copy of a text can destroy the history of the artefact. It is common practice, for example, to leave out blank pages when digitising text:

[..] their surrogates start with the frontispiece or title page, then move to the dedication/preface/letter to the reader/start of the text. But you know what’s missing? The blank verso of the title page. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It depends on what you’re looking for. But you’ll never know that you might be looking for an answer that depends on that blank presence if you don’t know that it’s not there.

Regarding the video archive, this point is still relevant: the representations of performance were originally on VHS and transcoded via SAMMA, so we should keep evidence of this. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It would be great to be able to see who’s handwriting is on the original videotape. It depends on what you’re looking for. But regarding a performance archive, I would argue, it is not so important that physical attributes of the record object are kept, what matters is the performance itself. We also have to deal with the fact that the physical aspects of the record are actually becoming harder to preserve as all steps of the archiving process move to digital: Circus Oz are shooting digital video now, writing show reports and tape descriptions on a computer, not by hand.

This is where the ‘living’ part of the ‘living archive’ comes in: To archive a performance, we need multiple perspectives from primary sources (ie, people who were there) to be able to clearly interpret the contents of the archive. If we are concerned with a record of perspectives, not a record of objects, then allowing people to add content (memories, stories, …) to the archive makes perfect sense.

Cameras I own: Yashica MAT-124 G

Aka, ‘this aint no instagram, buddy’. Part 3 in a series. Read part two. Part one.

This camera stands out on the shelf, and for good reason: it’s big, it’s old, it looks like a machine. And that it is. The Yashica MAT-124 G is a camera I picked up (for much too much money) when I was living in Tokyo and became ever-so-slightly obsessed with street photography and old film cameras (the camera was made some time in the 1960s). It’s my only TLR (Twin-Lens-Reflex), and my only medium-format camera. In layman’s terms that means it takes big square photos, not small rectangular ones.

A fountain at Zenkoji temple, Nagano

The evolution of cameras as mechanical devices is interesting to experience for yourself: the twin-lens system (where you look through one lens, and the photo is taken with the other) was a very simple mechanical solution to the problem of how to see what the camera ‘sees’, and made for cameras with very few moving parts. The lack of a mirror reflex system (as required in an SLR) made for a very quiet shutter as well. Focussing was a genuine mechanical action of turning a knob and moving the lens mechanism backwards and forwards. I could understand how it worked. It was a box for capturing light.

Akihabara, Tokyo

And capture light it could! Like many of my older cameras, its light meter was long dead, but I bought a small mountable light-meter from Voigtlander, because I wasn’t willing to take the risk of relying on “sunny-16” or taking guesses with this one, partly because the film and developing was expensive, partly because I thought the camera deserved a little more respect. It was a worthwhile addition, particularly for taking shots in dark conditions. It took a while to line up a shot, focus, check the light meter reading and take the shot, but it was worth it: the quality, mood and depth of the images still beats any other camera that I own.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Its size meant that it also got all sorts of strange looks from passers-by, but because it’s a top-down viewfinder (you look down in the top of the camera to focus), it looks like you are fiddling with your camera rather than lining up a shot, which made it great for candid shots on the crowded streets of Tokyo.

I pretty much stopped using the camera when I returned from Japan (I think I shot maybe only one or two rolls of film in Australia). It wasn’t just that the novelty had worn off (fun as it was, it sure was cumbersome). I really couldn’t justify the expense, and had been overtaken by the digital camera mindset of “take hundreds of photos and edit like crazy”. Instagram on my iPhone is fulfilling my ‘old looking square photos’ needs for the moment, but I’m sure one day I’ll want to go back to the slow photography of the TLR.

Rational reframing

Or, adopting the language of your clients as a manifestation of design rationality

As I work on the design of a prototype for the Circus Oz Living Archive I’ve been playing around with some basic experiments in reframing. It is a bit of a language game: by changing the way we talk about [something] we can change the way that we think about [something]. I started with a question: we are building a prototype, but what is a prototype? The answer could be very simple: a prototype is a thing, designed to test an idea.

This is where the language game begins. What else is a prototype? A prototype could be an introduction (perhaps the first time a client has interacted with a product or idea). A prototype is a tool (for data collection). A prototype is a rhetorical device (by leaving things in, or taking them out of a prototype, you are making an argument for/against certain aspects). A prototype is a process. You get the idea…

By asking the question, “if the prototype was x, what form would it take?” I am trying to force myself to leave behind my implicit understanding of what a prototype is for: perhaps a prototype can be for much more than testing and solving a particular design or technical problem. Schön calls this imposition of a ‘new way of setting the problem’ a ‘frame experiment’. This kind of experiment forces a reflection on your practice, or ‘Reflection-in-Action’ [and sorry about the sexist nature of the designer as ‘he’ in this passage]:

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. His inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation. 1

This kind of frame imposition can lead you to strange and interesting places. One of the paths that I’m interested in pursuing in my PhD research is the idea that performance practice and interaction design practice share certain qualities. This gave me a new frame to work with: What if we consider the ‘prototype’ analogous to the ‘rehearsal’?

Work with me here: A prototype shares much in common with a process of iterative development in a performance context. The rehearsal and the prototype are both tools to develop, explore, communicate and evaluate ideas. The prototype, like the rehearsal, encourages improvisation and reflective feedback. The prototype, like a rehearsal, can take place in a context similar to that of its final outcome. The prototype, like a rehearsal, can be understood as a means to an end, a version of an artefact that is subject to change, a collaborative work in progress.

One of the well known problems with the use of prototypes in interaction design is that it can be very hard to communicate to a client what a prototype is, and what a prototype is for. You can make the prototype as ‘low fidelity’ as you like, but this can lead to the client thinking that it is ‘broken’, you can make it ‘high fidelity’ which can lead to the client thinking it is finished (and so only providing superficial feedback) 2, you can carefully ‘filter’ your prototype 3 to test for a single quality, but this doesn’t let the client experience how the design might be used in a real world context. It can be really hard to get a client engaged in a process like prototyping.

I would say a lot of these issues actually arise from communication/language problems. A designer intuitively understands ‘prototype’: what it means, what it affords. But this is a technical, professional language. What if instead we adopted the language of our client, using a metaphor for prototype that they can understand?

According to Löwgren and Stolterman:

‘a designer has to have a solid understanding of the complexity involved in being rational. When a designer works with a client, she has to be able to appreciate the client’s understanding of rationality, in relation to her own understanding of it. A basic appreciation of that relationship is fundamental to the communication between designer and client. Rationality is therefore not only a matter of how to do things, but a precondition for good communication’ 4.

I would suggest that appropriating language of a client is an explicit attempt to understand a different rationality: for a designer, it is ‘obvious’ that a prototype is subject to change, unfinished, wants feedback, etc. For a performer, while ‘rehearsal’ has these ‘obvious’ qualities, ‘prototype’ sounds technical and meaningless.

This example of reframing in the language of practice is particularly interesting in the context of the Circus Oz Living Archive project, considering that one of the points of adoption for the digital archive is actually as part of their rehearsal practice. So: the prototype of the digital video archive is a ‘rehearsal’ for the digital archive, it is also a tool to use within the context of a rehearsal.

‘Rehearsal’ has pretty clear implications: this is an unfinished object; this is something open to change; this is an object with the potential for collaborative development; this is something that, while not final, will be public at some point in the future. Using this language can work the other way too: reframing ‘prototype’ as ‘rehearsal’ serves to remind me of the performing arts community context in which I’m working, and also serves to remind me of the prototype’s transience and malleability (which should help prevent me from becoming too fixated on a particular idea or design solution this early in the project).

  1. Schön, Donald A. 1991. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Aldershot: Avebury. p68 
  2. McCurdy, Michael, Christopher Connors, Guy Pyrzak, Bob Kanefsky, and Alonso Vera. 2006. Breaking the fidelity barrier. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems  – CHI  ’06, 1233. Montréal, Québec, Canada. 
  3. Lim, Youn-Kyung, Erik Stolterman, and Josh Tenenberg. 2008. “The anatomy of prototypes.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 15 (2) (July): 1-27.  
  4. Löwgren, Jonas, and Erik Stolterman. 2004. Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology. The MIT Press, December 1. p50 

Cameras I own: Ricoh GR-D

Part two in a series. See part one here.

This was the first digital camera that I actually liked using. I think in a lot of ways it was because of the look, which was largely based on the original late 90’s Ricoh GR1, only slightly smaller, and (of course) digital. I bought it because I was about to go on a long overseas trip, and decided it was finally time to make the leap from film (I really didn’t want to carry enough film with me to last 3 months). It was 2007.

Its small size and wide-angle lens made it great for street photography

When I bought the GR-D I was still in a ‘film’ frame of mind though, and couldn’t quite cope with not having a viewfinder. I shelled out for an add-on optical viewfinder that sat on the hotshoe (that’s the funny lump on the top). It was clear and bright, but it only gave you framing, no other feedback.

I liked the GR-D for its constraints, which reminded my of my film-based rangefinders. It has a fixed lens and a large amount of manual control. It was the first digital camera that made me think that maybe manufacturers are starting to ‘get it’: there are photographers out there that want a good-quality point and shoot that reflects the quality and characteristics (including controls) of good, small, film cameras. Unfortunately this ‘getting it’ hasn’t really panned out in the subsequent years, with the notable exceptions of the Panasonic Lumix GF1 (which I own and love), and the prohibitively expensive Fuji X100 (which I don’t). The GR-D never really lived up to this standard anyway in terms of speed or quality, but it was fun to pretend that the digital camera industry was getting somewhere.

Somewhere outside Reykjavik

Somewhere outside Reykjavik. Damn rocks!

My GR-D didn’t actually get very much use in the end. One month in to my travels, I managed to drop it on a rock in Iceland and damage the lens mechanism. My next camera-shop-stop was in London, and I couldn’t afford a replacement with the Australian dollar being what it was back then. I ended up shooting the rest of my trip with a Canon IXUS, which is a fine pocket camera, but comparatively boring.

You don’t get a sense from my illustration, but it was very small, light, sturdily built and quiet. A true pocket camera. My iPhone has effectively taken over my needs in that regard now, so I don’t really miss the GR-D. Plus the look of it fits right in on the shelf next to my various vintage film cameras.

Cameras I own: Canon Canonet QL 17

One of the first things that visitors to our apartment notice when they walk in to our lounge room is our camera collection on top of a bookshelf. There are 10 cameras up there: 9 of mine and one of Kate’s (a cute plastic Holga). There was a time when I actually used them all, or, at least, they have all seen a fair amount of use over the years. The 10 cameras aren’t even all of our cameras, the ones we still use tend to float around the house. I guess you could call it more of a ‘museum’ than a collection.

Somewhere in Tokyo, 2004

The Canonet is my ‘oldest’ camera up on that shelf (in terms of use, not vintage). It wasn’t my first rangefinder, but it’s the oldest rangefinder that I still have. My first was a lovely Ricoh 500G that I picked up at a second hand store when my very first film camera (a Pentax MZ50) was stolen. The Ricoh lasted well until I dropped it while moving house and snapped the lens clean off, and I found the Canonet on ebay to serve as its replacement. The Canonet became a faithful companion on my first overseas trip to Japan. I don’t think I’ve used it for at least 5 years: I opened up the back before I drew this picture and was surprised to see a half-used roll of film in there (now partially exposed to the light). I’ve no idea what’s on it.

SJ in Melbourne

The light-meter died within about a month of use and I took to setting the aperture wide-open (1:1.7 – it was fast too!) and guessing the shutter speed. This technique was hit and miss, but when I got it right, man this camera could nail the shot. The 40mm glass lens was a wonder to behold.

While obviously based on the design of the Lieca M3, the smaller, cuter dimensions and the angled rangefinder window gave this camera a look which has pretty much defined ‘camera’ in my mind for all of my life: it really is the classic camera design.

 

Editing is harder than writing

Last week I had my first attempt at writing an ACM conference paper. It’s not really a full academic ‘paper’ — it’s for a doctoral consortium — but it was still an interesting experience: I am submitting my PhD research proposal, and in order to fit it in to their conference format (seen above), I had edit my 5000 word (plus references) proposal down to ~2500 words (including references). One thing about ACM papers is that they proscribe a structure that you must work to (including section headings). This messed with me quite a bit as my original proposal was written as a ‘slow build’ argument: my research questions and arguments were introduced slowly, arguments for research questions scattered through a literature review, or arguments for a research approach scattered through the explanation of a problem. I have a habit of using narrative and repetition as a rhetorical device: I’ll introduce a concept early on with a sentence, later  repeat that sentence with an expansion, later in the piece explain in more detail using the same words. This doesn’t work for this kind of paper. I had to restructure my argument to fit to introduction/context —> literature review —> gap/research question —> project methodology, and the low word count meant I couldn’t play around with repetition at all. The positive: I had to re-think my argument such that it is now a little clearer in my head. The negative: I think this structure is boring way to make an argument. No narrative, boring to read. What I’ve discovered (and I’m sure it’s not an original discovery): editing is harder than writing. I can bang out 500 to 1000 words per day with no problem. Editing those words to a concise structure, that’s a different story.

Pragmatist action

…it might be useful to think of pragmatist ideas of action and experience as like the prosaic activity of children playing. In play, children are not interested in achieving unequivocal ends and they overcome problems by imagining new ways of acting or by inventing new descriptions of the situation in which they find themselves. In the pragmatist model of action, the relationship between means and ends is radically reformulated such that action is both means and ends.

— McCarthy, John. 2004. Technology as Experience. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. So perhaps what I was doing in my previous post was advocating a pragmatist approach to design synthesis: the synthesis process as an experiential means and end.

Communicating design synthesis

When synthesising the reams of data that we collected on the user-experience redesign for Pool, we produced several formal design artefacts that we used in workshops to communicate our thoughts and findings to stakeholders within the ABC. This process—explicitly encouraged by Jeremy Yuille—appears to be a direct response to Jon Kolko 1 and his argument that the private nature of design synthesis is one cause of problems in design practice:

When synthesis is conducted as a private exercise, there is no visible connection between the input and the output; often, even the designers themselves are unable to articulate exactly why their design insights are valuable. 2

The artefacts that we produced were expressive objects 3, designed help us understand our process, but also designed to help include the client in abductive sensemaking. While these objects couldn’t capture the full gestalt of our insights, they allowed a level of understanding beyond the usual presentation and subsequent discussion of a traditional design outcome.

Kolko spends much of his paper defining an explicit sensemaking action framework, complete with some oddly specific instructions (my emphasis):

The designer will begin to identify insights in the data that has been gathered by combining an observation (I saw this) with knowledge (I know this). They can then write the insights on yellow note cards. 4

While the methods he describes (reframing, concept mapping, insight combination) are not new to contemporary interaction design, the formalisation of a pattern language for synthesis methods is welcome and well justified, if a little over-prescriptive.

Where my experience on Pool fits here is not in relation to this formalisation, although we did use variations of the methods discussed in Kolko’s paper. Instead, it is in response to Kolko’s implicit argument for more effective communication of the sensemaking process to stakeholders. Discussing the lack of formality in design synthesis, Kolko notes:

Clients don’t see the relationship between design research and design ideas, and therefore discount the value of design research and design synthesis entirely. 5


I can confirm this anecdotally from my own experience in various design and development roles in the industry. I imagine that most designers would have experienced this in some form during their careers. This not as an argument for formalisation so much as an argument for more effective communication of process. You might call it a ‘second-level externalisation’ of the existing ‘externalisation of knowledge’ performed by the designer during abductive sensemaking 6. It is an attempt to make the implicit explicit.

What might this process involve? In the case of Pool it involved producing artefacts during sensemaking that acted as formal representations of our process. These artefacts were then used as a tools to communicate the (usually implicit) sensemaking to those not privy to the (usually private) insights of the designer(s). As a response to Kolko, it seems so obvious when stated: “The client does not recognise the value of design research and design synthesis—we really should communicate what we are doing more effectively”.

Kolko’s response to the sensemaking problem is a valuable industry focussed one: to formalise the processes through an applied framework (one that help designers understand their own insights), and to suggest that design practitioners allocate time to this formal process. I suggest an addition: produce formal artefacts during and after synthesis that can be used to communicate your process to stakeholders.

While synthesis is still primarily performed as a reflective and private exercise, production of formal records and artefacts could help a designer consider how and why they’ve reached certain design insights, improving the chances of effective articulation of concepts. These artefacts, when used as part of a client engagement activity, could help stakeholders to participate in—and better understand the value of—the research and sensemaking process.

 

  1. Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15-27. 
  2. Ibid. p. 25 
  3. Dewey, John. 2005. Art as Experience. Trade pbk. ed. New York: Perigee Books. 
  4. Kolko, J. (2010), p. 26 
  5. Ibid., p. 16 
  6. Ibid., p. 18 

Oh how Time Flies, it flies away from me—an apology

At the start of this year I had this crazy idea. My crazy idea was this: Somehow I could enrol in a ‘full-time’ PhD research program, and yet (crazy, I know) still find time on top of my ‘full-time’ PhD research program to do other work on my own iPhone app(s).

Turns out I was wrong. Wrong wrong wrongity wrong. I guess I’m writing this post as something of an apology to all users of Time Flies, especially those who I foolishly promised changes ‘coming in the next update’.

I do hope the app is still useful to you all in its current incarnation (after all, it hasn’t changed), and I hope you all continue to find it useful. While updates are coming, I can’t honestly say when they will be, other that they won’t be soon.

Thoughtful Interaction Design

Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology

Jonas Löwgren and Erik Stolterman, MIT Press, 2004

Now here is a book that:

  • a) I wish that I’d read many years ago
  • b) I wish was required reading for every designer, programmer, and manager working in the interaction design industry today

This wonderful little book lays out, with great coherence, what interaction design is, and why we (as interaction designers, or practitioners working with designers) should care about how design is practiced and care about reflecting on our design work.

It seemed to coalesce the thoughts and feelings dissatisfaction that I’d been feeling with interaction design (as exists in the “design industry”) perfectly. We, as designers, need to be thoughtful, because what we design is used, what we design has implications for society.

I also recently got around to reading McLuhan’s seminal essay, The Medium is the Message. It’s arguments have become so ingrained, so pervasive, that it reads today like a series of empty platitudes. But what McLuhan actually says—that we are affected by the technology that we make—is somehow more relevant now (or at very least, not any less relevant). Here is Löwgren and Stolterman in 2004:

…it is not a feasible position to view technological development as independent from society or as a driving force in societal development. Neither is the naïve opposing position tenable: Technology is not merely a neutral instrument of our wills and desires. We understand the situation as one of mutual influence: We shape technology, and technology shapes us.

Compare to McLuhan, 50 years(!) earlier:

The personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology

The thought I kept having reading Thoughtful Interaction Design: “yes, of course, we know that”, combined with “why don’t we practice that?” Over and over again.

I’m not going to go over all of the arguments here—just trust me, read it, it’s a short book.

 

Something, something+

On the day of the launch of Google+, the most interesting thing to me 1 was the snarky tweets that I noticed floating around:

or

There were countless other variations on the same theme – a joke about wanting to join some other (presumably) failed, out of fashion, or unpopular social network.

I found this interesting because of the way that it points to Twitter as a fashionable, trend obsessed, performative social space – the jokes are denigrating to Google – “ha ha, Google is jumping on the social-network bandwagon again”, but underlying them is a wish to participate in the trend: “Everyone is talking about Google+, how can I talk about it too, but make it look like I don’t care?”

But mostly I was interested because the tweets point to something else — something that is slowly becoming more obvious and better understood about the nature of the corporate internet: that the web ecology is extremely unstable. Committing to any service is a risky proposition. Next year at the launch of yet another social network can we expect to see the same jokes with “Facebook” in place of “MySpace”?

 

  1. As for the Google+ itself, there is plenty written about it already. I like XKCD’s take, and Dave Winer’s

Pattern recognition

I’m at that funny starting stage of my PhD where I’m trying to write a well defined research question, but in order to know what it is that I need to define, I need to read as widely as possible. I’m following all sorts of tangents at the moment: new media theory, interaction design, phenomenology, anthropology, media convergence, digital memory, performing arts practice, creative practice – to name a few, and I do mean a few. 1

I am starting to see patterns popping up, particularly as I begin to circle around a bit of a theme: something to do with prototyping process, and how video can be used as a rapid prototyping tool in the performing arts.

But I still feel like I’m flailing a bit, so as a break from reading and note-taking I invented a pattern recognition exercise. 2 From the top of my head (no looking back out my notes), I wrote down terms that I though were important, had come up regularly, or needed definition. As far as I can see, these are all terms that I’ll need to use in my research proposal.

Next, I put the words in a random order (so as not to make any direct associations), and for each word,  wrote a sentence or two about what it meant in terms of the literature, any contentious issues around the term, how I thought it related to my research, and how I thought it related to the overall project.

What this helped me do was identify any terms that need more definition, terms that were present in my writing but not in the literature, terms that were related to or defined by other terms in my list.

It also helped me in finding my ‘location’: I could identify as soon as I started writing which terms I considered the most important. The exercise was also an extremely useful idea generation tool – as I was writing each term, I would frequently find myself going back and forth, adding and removing from my other descriptions as ideas coalesced and interacted with each other.

Research at this early stage is particularly hard for me, because I constantly have to fight the urge to follow up everything in depth. Everything that I read sends me off on a new tangent, and everything that I read, see, hear, or experience seems relevant in some way – but it’s important that I define how it is relevant.

  1. I guess you want some names? (Academics love names): Liu, McLuhan, Dourish, Boehner, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Geertz, Lanier, Jenkins, van Dijck, Brockmeier, Kozel, Birringer, Vaughan… 
  2. At least, I think I might have invented it. I haven’t seen or read about this technique before in any case. 

New rule

I’ve been going on and on about “practice” recently, and it’s time for me to do some – this time it’s writing practice. As worked so well with my App a Week project, I’m going to impose some rules on myself: 500 words per day (weekdays), minimum. Academic writing, reflective writing, creative writing – it doesn’t matter. Notes don’t count, nor does rewriting. 500 new words.

I won’t publish them all here, I’m sure a lot will be rubbish, but I’m going to make myself write. I need to get at least as practiced at writing as I am at designing and programming if I’m going to get through this whole “academic program” thing…

Video as performance prototype

There is quite an established community and commercial practice of using video as a prototyping method, especially in software design. I made video prototypes the central artefact of my App a Week project, and in my prototyping work with Jeremy we used video to test interactions before building working iOS prototypes. Why does video work so well for exploration in interaction design? Interactions happen in sequence and over time – it is can be hard to properly understand interactions when seen as discrete elements, it is better to experience them as they will behave over time – video simulations allow you to play with sequence and timing easily. Video is cheap and quick to produce – programming a complex interaction can be time consuming and often exceedingly difficult – it’s much easier to knock-up a quick video that simulates the process rather than building it only to find it doesn’t work as expected, or needs to happen in a different order or though a different process. You know what else happens over time, involves discrete steps to form a coherent sequence, and is time consuming and often exceedingly difficult to produce and test? Physical performance. Because the act of performance is frequently very physically demanding, experimenting with repertoire is both time consuming and exhausting. Repeating an act in a different order is very hard and sometimes dangerous, cutting a video in to a new order is fast and cheap. This seems to be the overriding attitude of Mike Finch, Circus Oz’s artistic director. When working through the development of an act he will shoot multiple rough performances, cut them up in to sequences and sets of skills, edit them rapid-fire (with the performers watching), try new sequences, new music – mostly using a Flip camera and iMovie, but sometimes just with whatever he can get his hands on. I’ve been called upon several times to shoot video – any free hands in the room at the time get co-opted in to the process. To me, this process seems somewhat like creating a sketch or an animatic (I have heard Mike call the process “sketching” in fact) – it is not the performance, but it is a way to test the performance, quickly and cheaply. A prototype of performance, from the perspective of the audience. There is some difficulty getting performers to understand and engage with this. I watched time and time again as Mike would shoot an act and set about experimenting with sequence using iMovie, while talking the performer though the changes. Meanwhile the performer would attempt to ignore the video and try something on the stage instead, while Mike focussed on the screen. So what exactly is going on here? David Carlin says this is part of the “don’t look at the screen, look at me” – the narcissism of the performer. I think it is more than that – I’m guessing that circus performers engage with their performance on a physical and performative level (which makes logical sense), so the act of watching themselves on a small screen actively disembodies themselves from their understanding of what they are trying to do. I think that the video process is too abstract and intellectual for a lot of performers. To the performer, their understanding isn’t in “seeing” their performance – their knowledge is the knowledge of the act itself – physical knowledge, doing knowledge, being knowledge.  

Practice

I thought I had a really good idea about where I wanted to go with my PhD research. I’ve been interested in memory and nostalgia for a really long time, especially when it comes to the storage and retrieval of memories, the emotional attachments that we form with physical objects, and the way that we respond to digital objects as opposed to physical ones. “Great” I thought, “I’m getting somewhere with this”. I did some reading, some planning, I’ve read papers and books in fields like memory studies, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, media studies, anthropology. And I wrote a draft research proposal, an idea for a research question, on design for nostalgia and serendipity in archive software. “Not too shabby” I thought, “for someone who is new to this whole academic research gig.” But then something went wrong. For the last few days I’ve been hanging out in the rehearsal space with the lovely ensemble at Circus Oz as they prepare for their upcoming show in Melbourne, and as we (RMIT that is) ramp-up our research practice where the Living Archive project is concerned. It was a great experience (and one I hope to continue) – I’ve been “playing anthropologist” – hanging out in the corner with my notebook, observing people, conversations, physical and technological practices. Watching how a group like this puts together a coherent and complex circus show is absolutely fascinating. Problem is, this tiny bit of actual, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it research has changed my mind completely about what it is that I want to do with my PhD. I keep saying that I want to produce “useful, simple software”, and from my observations so far, what would be useful to Circus Oz isn’t some kind of archive that facilitates nostalgic engagement and tries to transfer characteristics and practices from “real world” archives in to “digital” archives blah blah blah… What they want is something they can use, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it, as they work and develop and produce and perform. And there is something in that thought – a research question that addresses a real, useful, practical application: video archives as an augment to an existing physical development practice, or practical applications for video in performing arts repertoire development, or….? So I’m a little stuck now. I need to turn around and re-write my research proposal form an entirely different perspective (which involves a whole new path of background-reading), and I’m under time pressure: I want to get a new draft to my supervisor this weekend, I’m off to WWDC next week, and I’m supposed to present my research proposal to a panel as soon as I get back. I’m just guessing here, but I get the feeling that this is just how PhDs go. Everything you read and do sends you off on a new tangent – you follow a path for a while and get sidetracked, or hit a dead-end and have to turn around. I’m chalking this one up to experience – if I’m going to spend all this time watching circus performers practice their backflips, I might as well start practicing mine.

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