Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions

I’ve had an abstract accepted to a workshop on ‘Geography and the New Empirics’. My title is “Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions about ‘audio-visual’ methodologies.” At the moment I like deliberately pedantic titles. Here’s the abstract:

Empirics – audio-visual methods

And a link to the workshop website:

It takes place at UCL and the RGS in London on 20th-21st January 2011. It’s being organised by Harriet Hawkins and some other geographers.

I’ll be using my presentation as an opportunity to open up some debate around questions like: what is the status of audio-visual media in research? How can audio-visual media function in a research context? How are audio-visual media, such as digital video and audio, different to written text – given that text is clearly visual and, arguably, also aural (since reading requires a voice of some kind)? These concerns have been nagging me more and more as I’ve been working with audio media over the last couple of years. I’m becoming convinced that, if people like me want to use audio-visual media and have this recognised as a legitimate way of ‘doing’ academic research, we’re going to need to address these kinds of questions much more thoroughly than has been the case thus far.

I’m particularly interested in thinking reflexively about the process of making and playing back audio and video recordings, in the same way that ethnographers have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is to produce texts for research purposes. It strikes me that there is nothing straightforward about this. When I take a mic and a recorder out into the city, record sounds, then edit the recordings, compress the files, upload them to a website or play them back in presentations…it’s all too easy to slip into believing that what I’m doing here is in some way ‘capturing’ sound so that the original experience can be ‘re-lived’ later.

I’m inclined instead to think about audio recording as a form of performance in which a whole host of elements are orchestrated together – sound vibrations, air, mics, headphones, ears, fingers, level controls, meters, eyes, silicon chips, electrons, and so on. The result is by no means a ‘captured’ sound – as though the sound had been caught like a bird and put in a cage, to be let out later. Instead what you walk away with is a trace left in some particles, be that magnetic or electrical or whatever, on tape, hard disk or flash memory. That trace can then be used later as a kind of script or score for another performance, again involving lots of different elements all working together – e.g. hard disk, computer, amplifier, speakers, air, ears. The behaviour of every element in the system affects these performances, and if one part misbehaves or breaks down the whole thing can fall apart, sometimes very beautifully.

The magical feat of technology is to hide this whole process inside a black box, and to accomplish the hiding ever more effectively. Think of the shift from wax cylinder to vinyl, tape, CD and now MP3s. At each stage the process becomes more invisible, and the technology arguably less prone to failures. This makes sense if you want to sell stuff to consumers. The illusion is part of the allure. Failures – vinyl crackles, chewed up tapes, CDs skipping digital glitches – expose the process, killing the magic. So they have to minimised as far as possible.

But in research, I want to be reflexive about what it is I’m doing – I see that as an important part of the process – so I want to open up the black box(es) and think more critically about exactly what is going on. Just as electronic and experimental musicians have come to value and even fetishise glitches, hisses, crackles and other hardware malfunctions (cf. Pole, Basic Channel, Position Normal, Oval, Matmos, Phillip Jeck, William Basinsky, Autechre, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda etc etc) maybe researchers could use such failures as openings, chinks to be prised apart to expose the workings..

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