Different expressions of the same mode: apprehending the world through practice, and making a mark

TAGsoton next week. I’m presenting in session 5 with my friend and collaborator Stefan Gant from the Department of Fine Art in the University of Northampton.

We will explain more in the session I’m co-Organising with Gareth Beale who is Digitally Creative in Archaeology at the University of York

If you are at TAG on Wednesday 21st December 2016 Please join us in Session 5 & 10

S5. Digital Visualisation beyond the Image: Archaeological Visualisation Making in Practice

This is the abstract for our paper

Different expressions of the same mode: apprehending the world through practice, and making a mark

In this paper we discuss pertinent features of shared experience at the excavations of an Iron Age Hillfort at Bodfari, North Wales, referencing artist, archaeologist and examples of seminal art works and archaeological records resulting through the collaboration. We explore ways along which archaeological and artistic practices of improvisation become entangled and productive through their different modes of mark making. We contend that marks and memories of artist and archaeologist alike intra-actively emerge through the object of study, the tools of exploration, and the practitioners themselves, when they are enmeshed in the cross-modally bound activities of remote sensing, surveying, mattocking, troweling, drawing, photographing, videoing, sound recording, and so on. These marks represent the signatures of the often anonymous practitioners, the voice of the deposits as well as the imprint of the tools, and their interplay creates a multi-threaded narrative documenting their modes of intra-action, in short their practices. They occupy the conceptual space of paradata, and in the process of saturating the interstices of cognitive artefacts they lend probity to their translations in both art form and archive.

Qian specular.jpg

RTI of seminal artwork by stefan “Linear Phrasing, Gant, S. 2016. Card” Here I’m reappropriating my hand gestures and illuminating them virtually…

Conserving the immaterial?

The hollow spaces which mark the final resting places of many hundreds of Pompeiians continues to fascinate and perplex me. These ‘voids’ are powerful testimonies to the final moments of the people who once lived and breathed in these spaces. Devoid of the mortal remains these voids are full of human existence. So what becomes of these spaces when you fill them with liquid plaster (gesso), when the layers are excavated, and the casts lifted?

The context is a void. What is the ontological status of the cast? What has the curator captured and conserved? Significant questions arise: when we fill the voids with material, are these immaterial contexts obliterated by the injected substance (e.g., gesso plaster) used to obtain casts? And, afterwards, when the cast is lifted and the void is ‘restored’, is the context reinstated?  Additionally, if the cast had never been made, and the volcanic deposits simply trowelled away, the void would still be there occupying the same, original, space, but now unbounded and undetectable. Is it still there? I think so.
Another paradox raises its ironic head: excavation in this context is non invasive, at least until the dig ends and the trenches are reinstated. It would seems that it is only when then trenches have been backfilled that these contexts are finally obliterated.

Husks, Seeds and winter is coming

It’s autumn here and the farmers are still working hard in the countryside to gather in the last of their crops and prepare their fields for the future. The grain harvest looks to be bountiful; winnowed husks given to the winds; the precious seeds meticulously separated, stored and preserved.

Husks and seeds have captured my imagination at the moment. I’m working on a paper which explores some potentialities of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, e.g., 3D printing, to better inform us about archaeological remains – physical deposits, structures and objects – and the methods archaeologists deploy to ‘record’, ‘restore’ or ‘preserve’ them.

Researchers around the world are doing extraordinary creative things with AM technology. Museum curators, for example, at the Smithsonian in USA , are able to scan exquisite, rare and exciting, materially vibrant objects from around the world and make them available to be rematerialised anywhere else on the planet possessing an internet connection, a web device, and a re-fabrication unit. This is without a doubt a novel, profoundly important, multi-valent arena in the cultural heritage industry in which many new voices can be added to the narrative.

But what are these objects that are being created? They aren’t exactly copies because they can be scaled up or down, reiterated in different materials, at uneven resolutions, features enhanced, and so on. Yes, they resemble the prototype they are based on, but they are not the same. In some ways they are like our autumn husks, empty, devoid of content, or filled with an undifferentiated, but expensive and sterile polymer-impregnated space. On the surface they may be aesthetically pleasing, indeed very cool or sexy. However, more prosaically, like the original object they were based on, they are still subject to decay, mishandling and abuse, and so, ironically, as Victor Buchli (2010) shows, it is the “immaterial code” that the printers use to reprint the object of interest that emerges as the most stable entity in this extended assemblage. Both the old originals and the new originals are mortal. They are potent, but not as virile as those digitally recorded prototypical encoded seeds, immutable, transcendent, and promiscuous, and instantly transportable to any transcultural domain to be reproduced, abused or, possibly, recontextualised.

Ontologically fecund, but winter is coming

Additive Archaeology, epistemological cleavers and ontological chisels

Early this morning, I walked down a mountain through olive groves, with the pre dawn breeze wafting me gently on, to catch a bus from the SE Cretan town of Makrigialos which took me to ancient and modern Irepetras, Europe’s most southerly port city, and from there onwards to Heraklion Airport from where I’ll post this missive. It was a beautiful scenic route, taking in sections of both of Crete’s impossibly sapphire-blue south and north coasts, and a pass though island’s eastern massifs, gorge riven, and pine forested, and of course ancient groves filled with contemporary olives. The shaded coolness of the air conditioned buses provides a stark contrast to the solar sintered landscapes through which the the bus is wending its way. En route I passed by the Minoan impregnated places of Vasaliki, Gournia and Malia. The past endures here. It’s persistent.

So, a journey to sit back and reflect.

This is the second time I’ve been to the island this year. I was talking at a conference in March, held in Rethymnon, another beautiful city; ancient, persistently Venetian. The inaugeral conference of ‘Computer Applications in Archaeology – Greece’ was very inspirational. I contributed some thoughts on ‘Additive Archaeology’ a term I coined with my friend and colleague Gareth Beale to explore the potential impact of additive manufacturing, most commonly seen in 3D printing, in archaeology. We argued it had potential for a new kind of ‘virtual archaeology’, another term I coined in another millennia which has become, bizarrely, at least to me, strangely persistent.

While travelling, I reflect on some of the things I’ve read over the last weeks. You see, I’ve been on holiday and I’m heading home to UK where I’ll soon join a team of archaeologists conducting field work at the Iron Age hillfort on Moel y Gaer, Bodfari in North Wales. I’m interested in the material persistence of archaeological assemblages, or entities, and how they emerge through interaction with other entities, including archaeologists, theories, interpretations and tool kits. For as Chris Fowler sums it up,”whereas the present is fleeting, the past is what endures: fleeting moments are entangled within an unfolding past” (Fowler 2013, 245).

The theorists I have been reading reflect a major shift in thinking by some parts of the archaeological community. Jones and Alberti (2013, 16) for example argue for “a reorientation from questions of an essentially epistemological nature — what constitutes archaeological knowledge and how do we go about securing it — to concerns of an ontological kind. What are archaeological entities and what is the real character of archaeological thought and practice?” This latter approach, known variously as a post interpretive or non representionalist position, draws attention to the fluid ecosystem of polytemporal relationships arising beween all the perpetually interacting agents implicated through archaeological research practices ( e.g., theories, archaeoloists, institutions, materials, technologies, instruments, techniques, and methodology). The corollary according to Fowler (2013, 235) is that since all this knowhow and wherewithal “is equally real, copresent and entangled, it is impossible to separate reality from theory or interpretation and test one against the other”. Put another way, there aren’t archaeological facts ‘out there’ awaiting discovery, no stable singularities ready to be clove off with epistemological cleavers. Rather, all these elements are relational, real but conditional. They are chiseled out and sculptured. In the words of Jones and Alberti (2013, 29) “[r]ather than interpreting the meaning of the artifacts they excavate through contextual analysis, archeologists shape and compose the assemblages that they excavate; through this process of composition, interpretation and evaluation arises”.

At CAA Greece, and later in the spring at CAA Paris, we highlighted how when a new technology is introduced into archaeology, the change in practice often makes explicit the craft knowledge, that invisible tacit knowledge, characterised by Bruno Latour as ‘black boxed’. Through such windows of time, of practice, we are given another chance to reassess those techniques, methods, tools, truths and theoretical assumptions before they are again reified within the instruments, technology and praxis of contemporary archaeology, time, in other words, to reflect on the ontological multiplicity, these ‘new’ multifaceted, ‘extended objects’ which emerge when we look at things from a ‘new’ perspective, and thereby make a new translation, a new instantiation. All our previous notions, theories, measurements, facts, and assumptions are still intact, we have just added some new dimensions to what was there previously. As Fowler (2013, 242) puts it: “Each time we instantiate a network, assemblage, or phenomenon, it is different: a unique configuration. Yet, I would argue, many of the components, actants, intra-actions, and so on do endure in similar ways from one instantiation to the next. One assemblage bleeds into others. These “new” assemblages are not exactly the same as the previous instantiations, but some of their properties seem to endure from one set of relations to another.”

The latest, potentially disruptive technology on the archaeological horizon called, generically, additive manufacturing, but popularised and hyped now as 3D printing, has been around longer than virtual archaeology, and encompasses a set of far more mature technologies that have long since passed over the peak of inflated expectations, through the trough of disillusionment, and are steadily advancing up the slope of enlightenment to the stable plateau of productivity, according to industry analysts (Gartner 2013). 3D printing is already causing fundamental changes to our interactions with the finds record and other archaeological assemblages. The Smithsonian museum, for example, has embarked on the ambitious X3D project, which aims to digitalise all 137 million iconic items in its collection, and make them available for 3D printing anywhere in the world. In so doing, we should note, they are also making them available for transcultural discourses within ethnographic archaeologies, in the sense of Castañeda and Mathews (2008). Imagine, if you will, that we might also print, the ‘context’ (assemblage, constellation, entity) in which these artefacts were ‘discovered/recovered/re purposed’ – materially vibrant translations imbued with more cognitive depth, more memories.

Additive manufacturing is just one technology enabling the spirit of virtual archaeology to generate new challenges to transform archaeological practice positively. Printing artefacts, monuments and cultural landscapes is established technologically, and is already starting to disrupt both transcultural and disciplinary discourses and narratives as direct access to these e-cultural entities by almost anyone, almost anywhere, to aggregate and disaggregate, to materialise and rematerialise them in any transcultural space, effectively disintermediates the opinions, interpretations and ‘authority’ of archaeologists and cultural resource managers. A richer multivalent archaeology is emerging. The implications of this abbreviated, and much truncated, thesis for archaeology are immense. Releasing the spirit of virtual archaeology thus will add a further technological nuance to the debate on the ontology of archaeology (e.g., Hamilakis 2014). Additive manufacturing provides a credible challenge to current archaeological practice, if we persist.

The paradox of ‘proper’ archaeology

The paradox of ‘proper’ archaeology

Field archaeology, specifically excavations, to some people might seem, not without reason, to represent some kind of externalisation of an anarchic, destructive, drive in the archaeological psyche. The excavator in creating one kind of archaeological record effectively devours, and efficiently effaces, the original, ‘proper’, archaeological traces or residues from which the record is censored, and an archive created. The archive then becomes, according to Jacques Derrida, the place where things begin, the new starting point the nexus of a new reality, where impressions, collected while ‘digging’, become reality, embedded in the self-replicating topology of the archive. Many other potential realities become lost in a fog of institutionally induced amnesia, where all the selections and decisions that brought the excavator to this point along the path are largely forgotten, with other voices being muted, and nuanced narratives deflected into the margins.

Embryonic virtual archaeology

In the 1980’s archaeologists embraced the rapidly expanding field of computer modelling and visualisation as a vehicle for data exploration. Against this backdrop ‘virtual archaeology’ was conceived. The term was originally intended to describe a multi-dimensional approach to the modelling of the physical structures and processes of field archaeology. It described the way in which technology could be harnessed in order to achieve new ways of documenting, interpreting and annotating primary archaeological materials and processes, and invited practitioners to explore the interplay between digital and conventional archaeological practice.

Exhibit ‘Towards a virtual archaeology’[http://vimeo.com/77871447]

This animation – which has been abridged and annotated in the interests of saving time — was presented at a CAA conference in 1990 and is a very early example of using Constructive Solid Geometry (GSG) or Set Theoretic modelling of digital solids in archaeology (actually in any discipline). The intent was to incite an epistemological rupture in conventional archaeological recording and representation of excavation data by demonstrating the arbitrariness of conventions, such as section or plan drawings and photographs, whilst demonstrating the possibility of developing new (radical) recording strategies, the relative advantages of which could be examined, discussed and evaluated in a non-destructive archaeological context.

It should be noted in parenthesis that the term ‘virtual reality’, then already in wide circulation, was conspicuous by its absence, and although the primary vehicles for illustrating the argument where graphical, the emphasis was firmly on 3D modelling of solid entities.

Initial reactions were muted, but the few comments made during the meeting pointing out deficiencies in the rather utopian definition of the model seemed to auger well. Indeed they produced a result at CAA91 where, in response, the utility of voxels and volume rendering techniques were proposed as one potential approach to dealing with the common, but slippery, problem of modelling contexts which present themselves initially, by way of illustration, as an amorphous brown-grey feature but terminated as an amorphous grey-brown feature, both ends of the spectrum being clearly differentiated but the transition between the two defying delineation.

Virtual Archaeology Nowadays

Today, virtual archaeology is synonymous with interactive Virtual Reality exhibits.

I often wonder how did we get here from analysing the intractable, poorly-defined and opaque, buried material continuum to structured, highly ornate depictions of space from the view point of disembodied spectres?

Can there be a new beginning for virtual archaeology too?