Introducing Photomediations: An Open Book
In her book The Chronology of Water Lidia Yuknavitch recalls a novel writing workshop led by Ken Kesey at the University of Oregon in the late 1980s (2010: 113). Inspired by a news clipping, Kesey and a group of thirteen graduates collaboratively wrote a novel titled Caverns (1989), which was credited to O.U. Levon. In his 1997 novel All the Names José Saramago engages with a possibility of breaking into an archive. The novel’s main protagonist, an anti-hero called José – a Kafkaesque Everyman – is working in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Lisbon. José’s desire to rearrange the Registry’s order constitutes the core of the story and symbolises a disruption in a larger sense, whereby the archive stands for a hierarchical and authoritarian structure. These two examples foreground the key characteristics of Photomediations: An Open Book that this essay introduces and engages with: its collaborative curatorial aspect and a disruptive gesture at the heart of it, which challenges traditional ways of composing books and archives. Photomediations: An Open Book is a curated open platform that explores the conceptual richness of the book as a potentially subversive and political medium. It offers an alternative way of understanding and constructing archives, one that embraces theory as a form of practice – and practice as a theory of an image-based meaning-making process.
Remediating a traditional design of the coffee-table book, Photomediations: An Open Book carries numerous implications for contemporary art book publishing. An experiment in ‘open and hybrid publishing’ undertaken in 2015 as part of the Europeana Space project, Photomediations: An Open Book features a comprehensive introduction and four chapters illustrated with over 200 images. The images have been drawn from various open repositories such as Europeana, Flickr: The Commons, Wikimedia Commons and The Public Domain Review. They are tagged with Creative Commons and other open licences. The book also contains three open chapters, the content of which can be developed and modified over time. Through its unique hybrid format, Photomediations enacts a shift from the idea of the book, and hence the archive, as a repository of documents and thus of knowledge, to the idea of the archive as a dynamic tool of knowledge production.
Thematically, the book tells a story about the relationship between photography and other media. The overarching idea behind its form and content is informed by the concept of mediation, defined by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska as ‘a key trope for understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with, the technological world’ (2012: xv, emphasis in the original). The concept of mediation embedded in the idea of ‘photomediations’ points to a process-based understanding of media. It also aims to trace technological, biological, cultural, social and political flows of mediation that constantly produce and enact various photographic objects and flows.
Fig. 1. Map of Photomediations: An Open Book
A Disruptive, Non-Linear e-Anarchive
Both on the level of structure and narrative, Photomediations: An Open Book is non-linear – even if it does take the history of the photographic medium seriously (Fig. 1). A constellation of texts and images arranged in virtual space, Photomediations: An Open Book invites comparisons with projects such as Aby Warburg’s Library understood as a ‘problem collection’ (Springer, 2015: 45). This unconventional library stemmed from Warburg’s belief in the power of images. (He had amassed a collection of over 25,000 images, mainly reproductions.) While images could be read as scientific and historical documents for Warburg, they also evaded literal translation by affecting the viewer with a more direct and poetic force. Through making visual connections between various images, Warburg subverted the traditional boundaries between rigidly defined disciplines. His library was a space where meaning was being constantly shifted: it was never static. Similarly, in his Le Musée Imaginaire André Malraux juxtaposed works that were separated by cultural, geographical and historical context (Malraux, 1947). Malraux’s ‘imaginary museum’, aka ‘museum without walls’, challenged the way in which traditional institutions presented works of art: as a chronological arrangement which reinforced dominant ideologies and institutional aims. Le Musée Imaginaire was intended as an experimental and interdisciplinary ‘virtual’ platform. It became a new repository of knowledge, providing a space of associations that could not be sustained by any other existing institution.
Fig. 2. Bob Bekian, Phantom HD Camera, 2012. Source: Flickr. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Fig. 3. Cypherone, Pinhole Camera, 2006. Source: Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Photomediations: An Open Book remains in conversation with the above discussed anarchival projects. Questioning the archive’s physical and institutional boundaries, it calls its rigidity and stability into question. It suggests that images, as well as their histories and theories, should rather be seen as functioning as dynamic forms of media practice (Figs. 2 & 3). In line with Vilém Flusser’s concept of techno-imagination (Flusser, 1990), Photomediations: An Open Book also signals that the relationship between text- and image-based information is changing due to the impact of new media technologies. Flusser’s proposal for a new form of critique, which – responding to this impact – engages with more radical forms of imagination, runs through the pages of Photomediations: An Open Book. According to him, the future of reading and writing is closely related to the reading and writing of images – a process which he considered creative. Thus, the rich connections that emerge between text and image must be analysed and explained, rather than threaded into linearity: ‘The linear gesture of writing tears the pixels from the image surface, but it then threads these selected points (bits) torn from the images into lines. This threading phase of the linear gesture negates its critical intention, in that it accepts the linear structure uncritically. If one wants a radical critique of images, one must analyze them’ (1990: 112). Flusser’s new imagination that arises from the computational gesture and from the new techno-imagination that emerged with the new media technologies also offers a critique of traditional historiography. This critique is based on eschewing chronological boundaries, as embodied by Flusser’s man that steps back from his linear life-world to first imagine it, then describe and, eventually, analyse it. This process, according to Flusser, should not be reduced to a linear sequence of events (1990: 116).
Fig. 4. Kamila Kuc, Untitled (Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia), 2011. Licence: CC BY-SA.
In the era of new technologies and new online visual cultures we are being constantly confronted with history’s rich mise en abyme (Fig. 4). This tableau of the never-ending image sequence invites a gaze into the past. With an appropriate angle, chronology can be escaped. Engaging with Photomediations: An Open Book means conversing in the style of Flusser’s playful imagination, prompted by new media technologies. Like in Warburg’s library and Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’, in the process of shaping Photomediations: An Open Book numerous connections emerged between seemingly unrelated images (Figs. 5 & 6). Composing a (non)narrative based on freely licensed photographs at first presented us with some limitations. But these soon became the project’s strengths as, in an attempt to tell a story from the available images we, as curators and editors, were able to look at the history of visual culture from a less canonical perspective.
Fig. 5. Unknown photographer, The FBI’s fingerprint files, 1944. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public Domain. Fig. 6. Mariano Cecowski, Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), 2005. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0.
Through playful juxtapositions of selected material, Photomediations: An Open Book also embraced chance in the process of bringing together a vast array of divergent images. Ahistorical in nature, chance played a part in creating the book, further reinforcing Saramago’s notion of archival disruption. Thus Photomediations: An Open Book can be seen as a living archive of innovative knowledge production rather than as a repository of old material. Driven by the principles of the (radical) Open Access movement, with its use of CC-licensed material and its invitations to readers to remix its various sections, the book functions as an e-anarchive. Its aim is to challenge the hegemonic structures of a traditional repository, where, as argued by Michel Foucault (1969) and Jacques Derrida (1998) (Fig. 7), the haunting spectrum of history is too often shaped into a politically comfortable fiction.
Fig. 7. Collective author, Wikimedia Logo Mosaic, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0.
A Curated, Subversive Book-Object
In Toute la mémoire du monde (1956, France), Alain Resnais’s meditative film on the French National Library of Paris, the narrator describes a process of borrowing a book from a library by highlighting the importance of selecting it from the extensive galaxy of other books. The presence of the book as a physical object in a physical space has been a subject of many texts on the nature of the medium, from Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Total Library’ (1939) and ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941), through to Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2009). Yet the shape of the book has been changing, and so has our way of experiencing and exhibiting it.
Every book, like every archive, library or exhibition, is a curatorial arrangement (see Springer and Turpin, 2015).1 Photomediations: An Open Book features a number of fixed chapters, as well as three living sections: ‘The Reader’ (to be published as a paper book and a downloadable open access pdf with Open Humanities Press later in 2015), ‘The Social Space’ and ‘The Exhibition’.2 These parts are open to continuous experimentation, mutation and transformation so that the book can be constantly reworked and reimagined. For example, a curated Tumblr blog ‘The Book is Alive’ in ‘The Social Space’ exhibits different ways in which the book has always been an open and living medium, from the illuminated manuscript through to ebook (see Hall, 2008; Adema and Hall, 2013). Celebrating its different formats and the technologies behind them, Photomediations: An Open Book explores the constantly evolving nature of the book.
Photomediations: An Open Book also engages with the contemporary context of academic book publishing by embodying many tenets of the open access movement, such as the promotion of ‘the free and fair exchange of knowledge’ (Hall, 2008: 9) but also, more importantly, by embracing ‘the radical ethical and political questions digitization raises for academic and institutional authority and legitimacy’ (Hall, 2008: 10). Seen in this light, this project is a direct descendant of the historical avant-gardes’ aim to engage with the praxis of life, as defined by Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984). Run on open software, Photomediations: An Open Book develops an affordable and resilient model of book publishing (see Ottina, 2013) that can be adopted by individuals, educational institutions and non-profit artists’ collectives. This cost-effective model permits a greater sense of authorial and readerly freedom. Through this, Photomediations: An Open Book is aimed to be an intervention into, and a disturbance of, the closed, exploitative, high-profit accumulating models of publishing and education. As a continuously evolving e-anarchive, the book here becomes a platform for debating the problematic conditions of contemporary knowledge production.
1 ‘Intercallations: paginated exhibitions’ is an excellent illustration of this idea. Edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, this series merges the idea of an exhibition space and that of an art book to produce beautifully curated, highly visual yet also intellectually challenging volumes which are available both in print and as open access pdfs.
2 See Open Humanities Press’ successful series Living Books About Life. These curated, open access books about life are produced by a globally-distributed network of writers and editors. The series represents an exciting new model for publishing, in a sustainable, low-cost manner, many more such books in the future. All the books in the series are themselves ‘living’, in the sense that they are open to ongoing collaborative processes of writing, editing, updating, remixing and commenting by readers.
Adema, J. and Hall, G. (2013) ‘The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists’ Books and Radical Open Access’, New Formations, vol.78, no.1.
Borges, J. L. (2001) ‘The Total Library’, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. London: Penguin Classics. (First published in 1939)
Borges, J. L. (2000) ‘The Library of Babel’, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. London: Penguin Classics. (First published in 1941)
Bürger, P. (1984) Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, J. (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Flusser, V. (2002) ‘A New Imagination’, in A. Ströhl (ed.), Writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (First published in 1990)
Foucault, M. (2002) The Archaeology of Knowledge (Part III: ‘The Statement and the Archive). London: Routledge. (First published in 1969)
Hall, G. (2008) Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kember, S. and Zylinska, J. (2012) Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Malraux, A. (1996) Le Musée Imaginaire. Paris: Gallimard. (First published in 1947)
Manguel, A. (2009) The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ottina, D. (2013) ‘From Sustainable Publishing To Resilient Communications’, tripleC 11(2): 604-613, 2013, accessed on October 18, 2015.
Saramago, J. (2010) All the Names. New York: Vintage Classics. (First published in 1997)
Springer, A.S. and Turpin, E. (2015) Fantasies of the Library. Intercalations: paginated exhibition series. Berlin: K.Verlag Press. Also available online.
Yuknavitch, L. (2010) The Chronology of Water. Portland: Hawthorne Books.
Kamila Kuc is a writer, experimental filmmaker and curator. A post-doctoral researcher in the Media and Communications department at Goldsmiths, University of London, she is one of the co-editors of Photomediations: An Open Book.