Either/And: An Introduction

Either/And has been devised as a framework within which to debate and share perspectives, using issues and questions posed by the National Media Museum and its partners as the catalyst for discussion and exchange relating to media. A series of commissioned essays, interviews, images and films will be published on the site to serve as the catalyst for online public discussion.

Either/And begins its first cycle by examining the place of photography in contemporary culture structured around eight key themes. It is being edited by Ph: a collective of more than thirty early-career UK researchers working with photography.

Charlotte Cotton (CC), Creative Director for the National Media Museum, and Ben Burbridge (BB) from Ph discuss their aims, purposes and hopes for the site in the following conversation, which took place in April 2012.  

BB:  You approached us about the project that has become Either/And more than eighteen months ago. What did you have in mind back then?

CC:  I was really impressed with the way that Ph had come together as a supportive group of postgraduates and photography educators to share ideas and create a wider sense of photography’s debates. Your collective pluralism seemed to me to be a very special and necessary energy for the field of photography and one that the wider community of photofiends would enjoy interacting with.  And I hope the project’s first year offers Ph a platform for discourse that is wider than the academic communities that you are part of. 

As you know, photography as a subject and a medium is not alone at this moment in time in its mercurial state.  All areas of creative industry and technology are working out what types of structures and creativity are going to prevail. And how our contemporary experiences influence the ways we rethink and rediscover the histories of media, including photography. I wanted to build a website that is a thoughtful space where our ideas can be tested and developed within a self-elected community of users, with an independent editorial team—and in this first year it is Ph—who drive the scope of our discussions.

BB:  I think the types of collaboration you have described are crucial, along with the testing of ideas. And I agree that photography—like other media—is currently in flux, opening, or re-opening, interesting sets of discussions. But perhaps the present instability has merely underlined an existing truth regarding the promiscuity of photography as an object of study and the limitations of any single discourse or discipline in providing the tools necessary to really examine and understand it?

CC:  Yes, and attending some of the Ph meetings in the build up to the launch of Either/And was brilliant for me to be able to comprehend how you are invigorating photography’s inherent interdisciplinary nature. I think that this comes across in the themes or groupings that Ph are starting out with – each one considers photography in relation to new and prevalent social and cultural themes. The groupings that Ph have formulated are each pivoted to the all-pervasive impact of digital imaging on the ways that we think about photographic categorisations and dynamics, from the nature of capture in a digital age to the impact of citizen photography. Maybe you could say more about how the groupings we are using for Either/And came about?

BB:  I think Either/And is better understood as a process than as a product. Both its structure and content have grown out of a long series of conversations between various parties, and those conversations will hopefully continue when the site goes live.

The initial brief was very open, beyond the fact that our year as editors would centre on photography, and what we produced and commissioned should be discursive. The group went away and various people produced proposals. At that stage, each of these was envisaged as the single focus of the website and publication. The topics varied and, inevitably, reflected the research interests of particular members of Ph. But the group is currently made up of more than thirty researchers drawn from fifteen UK universities, so I hope these are to some extent representative of at least some of the discussions taking place around photography at the moment.

All of the proposals addressed issues relating to digital culture in some way, but this was not always direct. The strand on amateur photography, for example, can be thought about in relation to ‘citizen’ practices, but this is not the main concern. The contemporary currency of the project lies more in its attempt to rethink existing scholarship in this field, which is seen as both limiting and limited. Bella and Juliet, who are responsible for this strand, both deal with amateur photographic practices in their research, so are well positioned to engage with these ideas and commission others to do the same.

Other projects are much more explicitly linked to changes associated with digitization, but, again, the key questions are being framed in a manner that hopefully goes beyond the technologically determined. The strand I am working on with Catherine Grant, for example, considers the new types of public visibility permitted through Web 2.0, but our interest is in how this links to a wider culture of exhibitionism. The ‘Protest, Politics and Community’ strand aims to place pressure on utopian claims made for a participatory digital culture, both by pointing to links with Tory rhetoric about ‘The Big Society’ and examining examples of social engagement promoted through community photography in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Once the initial proposals were submitted it became clear that, while significant overlap existed between some of these—to the extent that they could probably be combined—many of them were too distinct to allow for their assimilation into a single, unified discussion. That was why we decided upon a site that would allow the different projects to sit alongside one another, with different sets of debates coming to the fore at different times. There have been many, subsequent processes involved in refining the focus of individual strands, which have involved a form of peer review among Ph, in dialogue with specialists from outside the group.

At that early stage we had imagined a linear structure for the site, with each strand allocated a set period as part of a year-long calendar. So the site would start off with six weeks on Materiality, followed by six weeks on Re-Use and so on. It was only after we continued the conversation with you, and began to talk to the designers, that the project started to assume the ‘networked’ structure it has ended up with. This was an interesting process, as it became clear that web designers may have a more complete perspective on the possibilities of the Web and how this can, even should, structure the production and dissemination of research than academics. But perhaps you want to say something about this process, and why the site is structured in the way it is?

CC:  I wanted Either/And to be an iterative process and, for the want of better terminology, the content and design and architecture of the project to be developed together. Personally, I find it to be a much more creative and enjoyable working process if every facet and each creative involved is given license to activate shifts and observations that increase the specificity of a project and cumulatively result in something original and meaningful. I don’t, for example, like design that looks Open Source but actually isn’t, nor on-line discussions that are proposed as discursive, but aren’t!

With Either/And, it was really important that the outcome was founded on real truths – with Ph as the original thinkers with a desire to create an open forum and Alex and Wolfram constructing Web design conceived from genuine Open Source thinking and then refined through detailed discussions and shared decision-making on the part of the working group. For me, Either/And wasn’t so much about providing something in the absence of anything, more about applying the wonderfully creative model of on-line culture and thinking to an area—museum and academic websites—that hasn’t fully or creatively harnessed that potential.

BB:  Absolutely, but I would go as far as to say there is a growing need to utilise that potential. Each of the Either/And strands now exists as a proposition, which will be examined from a number of disciplinary perspectives, which will, in turn, generate responses. The fact that each of these propositions will be addressed simultaneously and develop within a single, public forum should allow for unexpected links to be forged between them in unexpected ways through the intervention of various parties, creating connections that we did not initially anticipate.

I think this is particularly important owing to the pressure under which interdisciplinary research is placed in this country. Academics are required to churn out research according to a corporate model of productivity. This can encourage people to 'play it safe' in terms of research, and risks denying them the time necessary to grapple with alien discourses or sets of discussions that sit outside their specialism. This same culture promotes competition, both between departments and Universities, in a manner that can discourage collaboration.

I hope this site is one way to at least start the conversations with other disciplines that make new types of knowledge and understanding possible, and to start them as dialogues rather than efforts to draw approaches from one field into another because they seem a bit novel. We would like the voices of philosophers, political theorists, specialists in technology, activists, amateur practitioners and so on to join those of the art historians and photo theorists whose work generally dominates discussions about photography within the humanities. I am sure this effort will prove to be imperfect in many, many ways—I already feel the main contributions may be skewed too heavily towards those familiar voices—but then the site also has the potential to develop in a self-reflective fashion, providing a space in which these shortcomings can be acknowledged and discussed.