A couple of weeks ago I was able to hop across the ocean to Melbourne to attend a symposium on new and future techniques in researching with and about digital-visual technology. Hosted by the Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT, the symposium explored the emergence of new visual techniques in the fast expanding realm of digital technology. Papers from Sarah Pink, Paolo Favero, Jennifer Deger, Adrian Dyer, Jair Garcia, Shanti Sumartojo, Edgar Gómez Cruz, Ingrid Richardson, Larissa Hjorth and William Balmford, Alison Young and Melinda Hinkson explored subjects such as the ethics of responsibility within digital-visual research; i-docs as a tool of ethnographic research; the entanglements of people and their pets constructed through media in the home; and the ethics of public space.
The whole day was fascinating, forcing me to rethink my assumptions of technology as either present or emergent in the ways it is used, and I left with a lot to consider. But there were two papers that I found especially fascinating, primarily because they challenged my ideas about the technologies they discussed. Before the symposium, when I heard the word drone I thought of two things: the military, and surveillance. They were, in my mind, technologies of dominance and power, politically and geographically.
Although he concurred that drones exert influence on vast space (horizontally and vertically), and insert intelligence collection into new spaces of the atmosphere, in Bradley Garrett’s paper on Drone Methodologies, he described their re-appropriation as tools of resistance and protest – instances of graffiti in New York, for example, show the ways that any technology designed to control can be used to re-connect and re-assert the emancipatory and playful aspects of their potential. Drones thus become a ‘powerful political proposition’; a tool that induces fear, suspicion and dread in some contexts, can be a tool of engagement and hope via such subversion and resistance.
More interesting to me, however, were Garrett’s arguments on the relationship between the drone and its pilot. The immersive and embodied nature of the technology (to pilot a drone you need to be completely engaged in the process and use not only your vision, but your whole body as you navigate the atmosphere) mean that for many pilots, drones become ‘an organ of sensuous contemplation’ (borrowing Humboldt’s statement on the telescope); an extension of the self that allows unique forms of spatial engagement through their movement through the nephosphere – the space between buildings and clouds that until recently has been both uncharted and unexplored (see some of Garrett’s drone filming here).
They extend the increasingly porous boundaries between human-technology not only through their piloting but through the emergent forms of knowledge they create and enable: possibilities based not only at the critical edge of knowledge, but through the very dimensions in which knowledge is created. I left thinking not only that I need to pilot a drone, but that I learned about a whole new part of the world of which I was ignorant. I guess we’re always exploring, both space and knowledge, and maybe drones can become critical tools of this engagement.
The second paper that left me thinking was a joint paper by Sarah Pink and Shanti Sumartojo on the video trace of Go-pros. I have a lot of love for GoPros: I appreciate their versatility, their accessibility, their vitality. I think of Leviathan and the over-whelming visceral engagement they brought; the suffocating immersion and movement between sea and air that only a mobile vision could invoke. I like the democratizing aesthetic of a fixed focus, wide-angled lens that gives equal consideration to everything within its frame (the true aesthetic of observational cinema). But this talk discussed another aspect of their use, and one I had not previously considered; the visual, video trace they make (or leave) in the world.
GoPros (and cameras in general), Pink and Sumartojo argue, are not technologies for observing the world. They accompany the body as it moves through space, and in doing so what they film is not a record of the world, but a trace of the route we take through it. They are involved in moments of mundanity, solemnity, and exhilaration. They record the sensorial texture of our relationship with the world and the accidental (or incidental) aesthetics that accompany our movements within it. Video is not about recording what we see in front of us; it never has been. The images we capture are as much about what’s around us as what’s in front of the camera. The video trace left by a GoPro shows us much more than the movement of a body – it takes us through a new part of the world in which we live.
I left the event feeling elated: to spend the day among some of the most innovative researchers in digital-visual techniques by itself would be enough. To leave feeling we have the potential now not only to construct new knowledge, but to explore new parts of the environment through these technologies, was even better. Digital-visual techniques are constantly being reconfigured as technologies of research and knowledge creation. Like the drone that takes us to a new part of the atmosphere, or the GoPro tracing our path through the landscape, visual technology right now is providing new spheres of engagement, not only with our environment, but also with our very understanding of what that environment is. They take us through a new part of the world in which we live, and in doing so we learn much more; not about what we see in an image, but about what an image enables us to see.
Caroline Bennett is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research explores the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime, exploring mass graves and the dead that lie within them. Methodologically she is interested in how creative methodologies enable spaces for exploring difficult and sensitive issues, and how visual methods in particular can offer modes for engaging beyond the academic community.