Monday, 5 June 2017

Notes and further thoughts on a productive discussion with Dr Juliet MacDonald, on Friday 2nd June 2017

Dr MacDonald opened the discussion with positive feedback that my series of recent blogs, although lengthy, are sufficiently concise and making connections between lots of different things.

I am quite reflective about my processes and how I capture all of this material, and so inevitably I'm thinking through how I have encountered things. It's really good to have that reflection through my blogs, and this form of recording allows me to analyse how things are happening, but also can be disseminated with critical thinking to the tutors.

In thinking further about this, I am concerned that my brevity could be improved, and one of the ways that I believe that this may be achieved is through critical reflective conclusions as summaries from time to time. This is useful not only for my tutors but also for me as when I do take the chance to go back and review previous blogs, it is often necessary to read them in their entirety. Bulleted conclusions at the end of each blog and a disciplined production of these should continue, therefore.

To reflect properly on blogs, I recognise that some succinct 'signposts' (as Dr Bailey likes to call them), are required.
I provided Dr MacDonald with the latest update together with the feedback from Richard Mulhearn on the previous module. I confirmed that I am still thinking that the essay will be the major part of my outcome, and I'm working towards putting the scaffolding together, or a storyboard of how the essay is going to be constructed. If this storyboard can be put together coherently, I can start adding and subtracting material rather than just trying to churn it all out at once. This is my plan for the written piece.

About the practice and my actual drawings, I haven't shown Juliet too much of these in the past, but I intend to more regularly display my experiments of what we may speculatively think a Peregrine might see, and what is important to it. I have been using both hand-drawn and computer/digitally manipulated images, particular views of cliff faces, original habitat locations of where peregrines are.


The line drawings that are hand drawn have been rendered with depictions of object edges that are thicker, where these object edges are of more significance and thinner where the information is tending to be more superfluous. The thicker edges are more important for a Peregrine to either avoid or land upon. This was my original concept, but I recognise that I may be anthropomorphizing, that is, creating a human interpretation, and so perhaps a more abstracted rendering could be more active. In this case, I have used the digitally manipulated Adobe Illustrator examples of the same image.

These digitally manipulated images have been rendered through post-production techniques, by using Adobe, to efficiently create edge detection, then converting the edges to line drawings, and then turning those line drawings into charcoal style lines with trailing leads and ends. This gives a kind of lost and found line style and feeling to the line itself, and it makes it interesting because of its oddness. Dr MacDonald commented that these digitally created images were denser and textured. My concern is that this density and texture may be too much? And I am still rather undecided as to which route I should pursue. Nevertheless, these experiments are helping me to take the practice forward. The hand-drawn images are much more recognisable as a humanly interpreted scene, whereas the digitally created and manipulated images create interesting 'byproducts'. For example, the sun-rays are digitised as an edge (as discussed in a previous blog). Digitisation isn't foolproof by any means, but again this is our own human interpretation perhaps. However, Juliet did like the digitally rendered, charcoal style line drawings through Adobe Illustrator because in her own words "they activated her imagination".

There are differences in process that I'm researching here, and Dr MacDonald helped me to articulate this.  When using a camera, there is a selective process in itself, as I have chosen to go and take a particular image based on my own preferences and aesthetic predilections of a composition. I have then taken the photograph of a landscape and made it into something new through a mechanical and digital process within that capture of light and how that data is then stored in a camera. In the digitally manipulated method, there is a continuity of the computer-centric algorithms which are built into the camera, built into PhotoShop, and integrated into Illustrator.

Using this computational data approach to generate an image still has my own input in an artistic sense, because I am in control of the various parameters of how I apply the different effects, thresholds of variability through these algorithms and so on. Whilst there is a sense of these digitised versions being more of a mechanical image, they still have my own interpretation from my eye and aesthetic choices being made. There is, therefore, a significant human input to it in either case.
The reception and selection of the images are only different processes. There is a lot of opportunities to reflect and discuss how my hand /eye manipulations, in both, are hand drawn, and the digital versions can manifest themselves. The computer won't make much distinction in things that are tonally similar, whereas I, as a human can make decisions between a rock edge, and eternal side as a distinction. In my conceptual working through these experiments, it does make sense that these decisions and distinctions would also matter to a Peregrine. Although we don't necessarily know!

Overall though, it's more likely that we are closer to a Peregrine when it comes to edge perception, then we are to a computer, that with current technology (that is available to us as practitioners of course), as computers are unable to distinguish three-dimensional objects purely through tonal comparative algorithms adequately. There is a need for a stereoscopic vision for this to occur, and our ability to then reflect on images that we see in front of us, and compare them with our experiences of three-dimensional objects. How we see, read and interpret light and space and colour is a fundamental difference between ourselves as humans (as animals generally, peregrines included of course), and the mechanical and algorithmic interpretations of computers.
It is an act of imagination, as Dr MacDonald pointed out, that what a Peregrine might see. It is therefore speculative and therefore by looking at various landscapes, such as these cliff faces, is useful because it calls us to think about differences concerning propensity, - that they (birds of prey) might have or might not have. Compared to a human being, and our own propensities, a bird is more likely to be happy to jump off a cliff edge and navigate through a landscape with alternative proclivities that the bird may bring to view. A bird will see it as a possible path or a possible route to take while it is flying, whereas we would only interpret such a rapidly presented series of images almost like an impending doom!
In Dr MacDonald's terms, humans are "not exactly rooted, gravitationally challenged". We are two-dimensional in many ways in the sense that we are "gravitationally challenged", (a brilliant phrase from Dr MacDonald), and we cannot simply just leap out from a rock face and free-fall, with an expectation of ourselves successfully navigating such landscapes. We may sometimes want to emotionally, but actually, we know that we can't. Therefore because of the way that I am exploring this through the practice of drawing and photography that enables us to start to think about what the fundamental differences could be between humans and peregrines. That non-ability to fly becomes a key difference between us, through these alternative propensities. That is how we might read a landscape, through an image, and how we might navigate it, what becomes potentially navigable.
It's useful to explore the differences and use these different processes. Dr MacDonald asked for clarification from Helen Macdonald's book H is for Hawk (2014), as to what type of drawing the Hawk had been looking at. On page 137, Helen Macdonald explains that "the drawing was in ink; it was stylised and sparse: it caught the feel and form of partridges, but there was no colour or detail to it."
So the lines were edges, and it was that which I have been pursuing. And so this is all about edge, and the edge is critical, the density of edge, what level of edge: and while the Adobe Illustrator images of mechanically picking out sides through edge detection, it is a spurious detection through colour and tonal differences, rather than perceived three-dimensional object edges.

What is interesting, is that humans can detect edges (as can all animals with more than one functioning eye), through stereoscopic vision, combined with experience and memory, and also movement and moving objects. But computers are far less able to construct and imagine, (as we can in our own mind's eye) as an edge variances in tonal and colour. We are quickly able to differentiate as humans, what are physical sides and edges.
Does this mean that human beings and animals are constructing in their minds, through imagination, based on experiences what a physical object 'is' in three dimensions, even when looking at a two-dimensional image or representation? In the digitally manipulated Adobe Illustrator, black-and-white images, while there is a lot of density of information, this two-dimensionality almost becomes something even less. It can't be called one-dimensional because this would just simply be an image rendered on a single linear plane (that is up and down only, or left and right only, or any other single horizon (azimuth) and would simply not be recognisable as anything other than a single line in itself).

Dr MacDonald explained that she had come across books about the psychology of visual perception and computers, and moreover computer programmers, who want computers to be better able to cope with edge detection and so they use theories such as Gestalt psychology.  In order to look for ways in which a computer, through its algorithms can start to make more intelligent decisions of what edge detection is, and what is depth, and what is coming towards you; and what is receding, what is space, and what is flat, from photographic images. They do use Gestalt principles of psychology and visual perception to try to build more intelligence and algorithms for this kind of work. The objective is to understand two-dimensional images to reinterpret them as three-dimensional images with surface, space and depth.

This is fascinating as it is a kind of way of thinking through all of those things. We also discussed my recent acquisition of Tim Ingold's Lines: a Brief History (2007) briefly. He talks about all sorts of different lines within this book, and Dr MacDonald suggested that he may indeed talk about edges, in particular, something that I need to look out for, while I'm reading it over the next few weeks. As yet I haven't found the specific references to edges, but I've only just started reading the book and look forward to much deeper scrutiny and later review.
Dr MacDonald reaffirmed Dr Bailey's recommendations that Ingold does explore lines of connections, lines of enquiry, lines of thought, and possibly even lines of flight, all of which are relevant to my project. He also talks about the wayfaring lines of experiences and travelling. He talks about lines of text and in textiles and threads. Genealogical lines, kinship diagrams and so on as different ways of presenting information. On a personal note, I found some of the symbols that were used within the chart of genealogical lines (as depicted as a circuit diagram), which are very similar to the symbols used for electronic components in circuit diagrams.

Within Tim Ingold's book, there is also a reference to the work of John Ruskin, who Dr MacDonald made a very direct link to my project, as Ruskin was first and foremost a geologist and he regularly drew small geological specimens.  It reminded Juliet of the cliff faces that I have been rendering. Working through lines, what they might represent and how they could be interpreted are all very useful research subjects, and Juliet was very encouraging for me to continue along this thread. This seems to be very appropriate landscape to pursue.

I've also been thinking about the ideas of perception and elevation as well, and I showed some rough sketches of speculative drawing, still on the theme of what's important to a Peregrine and what a Peregrine might see. By taking an original scene at ground level and then imagining the view from approximately 40 feet above, and then redrawing through imagination. The distant perspective and horizons remain the same, but the near space alters. The idea of elevating above the objects in the foreground and mid-ground creates a different sense of the visual field. Taken too far becomes a plan view which is more architectural, and not relevant to what I'm trying to explore. Nevertheless, these ideas are worth exploring. Juliet suggested if it may be possible to animate these types of views a bit like a Peregrine taking off from the ground somehow. By starting from the flat and working upwards?

It would be great to create some panorama of the digitally rendered images in an enormous format might be interesting. I could then pick out undulations and references that I would not be able to find in a small cropped picture. Or maybe even a large laser cut image? These are great ideas that Juliet helped me to work through and consider.

Dr MacDonald had also noticed that I had an interest in William Kentridge, and his ideas of animations are what I've been exploring.
I was worried that I have been doing much of my drawings from photographs rather than from outside primary sources, which would naturally be preferred artistic method. However, Juliet reassured me that, by producing sketches from photos, this is perfectly acceptable as a method.  I am creating images by using more imagination, particularly if drawing from a photo because there is less information. So it does become more speculative as a process. These are all good research methods through drawing, and I'm testing out what edges are what is readable as edges with speculation of what might be an edge for a Peregrine. Speculation on rising above the landscape is about imagining what flight might be, and what a flight path could be. This is all useful.

Lines of flight concerning speculation, thinking, connections, the way that I'm connecting different texts et cetera the temporal sense of timelines and so on. Those serendipitous moments are connecting lines as well. A complete network visually is a map of connections, almost becomes a topology as contour lines. How I have been encountering these different things needs to be put into the narrative of my essays. There is scope about leaving things open-ended, about not knowing is as much critical about things that we do know. Ideas work in both ways whether they are factual, mythical and unverified or whatever.

- Dr MacDonald confirmed an earlier statement that I had read in John Grey just a few days earlier. In - Silence of the Animals: On Progress and Other Myths (2013), regarding 'Myths' - "If there is a gap in knowledge we tend to try and construct something". - As touched on by Gray in examining Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger When Prophesy Fails (1956). (Loc. 769 of 2550) and others.

Another area that could be useful for me to look at, (as suggested by Dr MacDonald), are "Situated Knowledges" by Donna Haraway. Ideas of primate vision, the organic versus the mechanical vision and digital vision that can be theorised through Haraway. She talks of situated knowledges, and this is a rich source of contemplation, which is an essay inside one of the publications. It is available on the Internet, and while very dense in places, (because she is writing in 1991 or sometime then), it is very much of its time. There is a PDF available, and it is worth reading, even though there are references from that era.  A Marxist-feminist standpoint, but also explores the Persistence of Vision, and vision as to what it means, the gaze and how vision is associated with knowledge and scientific practice. It is a polemic way of writing, which is her at her best writing: - "strident" according to Dr MacDonald. From a biologists point of view, this is very useful because it is all about different ways of seeing, and from an animal's point of view, in particular, her dog Cayenne. This sounds like a brilliant source of research material that I need to schedule for a review!

Thinking a little further about the conversation with Dr MacDonald, I recall that we talked briefly about how I had used Adobe Illustrator to vectorise the images. Vector-based image means that I'm able to make the images scalable to almost any size that I wish. The process, in brief, is as follows:
  • The initial image is processed in Adobe photo shop to clarify and reduce the number of colours to say eight. It is exported as a JPEG file which is imported into Adobe Illustrator.
  •  The next part is the process of vectorization. That creates the block lines which surround the detected colour boundaries. This creates pools of different colours with boundaries of solid lines.
  • Once this has been completed, and computational rendering has taken place, I convert the contents of all the block shapes into the transparent fill. This just leaves the outlines as lines on their own.
  • In Adobe Illustrator it is possible to select all of those lines and convert them to a different paintbrush style. The one I have chosen for these drawings is the charcoal paintbrush style.
By removing the colour and converting the outlines to the charcoal style, I'm trying to minimise the articulation of the image. This makes a very scalable image, and the line quality, as already mentioned contains a "lost and found" type of line style.

In keeping the detail of these drawings, it may be possible to create some panorama on a bigger scale as it is vectorised, but it is clear that more sophisticated and highly integrated detail, when expanded to a much larger format, or generally otherwise, requires a great deal of both compute power and computer memory. I'm a little bit doubtful that the technology available to me at the University has sufficient compute power and memory to fully create a three-dimensional, virtual reality style of rendering. However, this is something that I may consider pursuing. My own Windows-based system at home could I suppose be upgraded, although it already has a latest Intel Pentium i7 and 32 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of video RAM. It's quite a beastie!

Perhaps I need to talk with people like Steve Hibbert or Nick Deakin and others to see if it may be possible to either daisy chain some computers if necessary or at least to get a better feel for the likely computing platform that I might need for this kind of work?

I need to explore this further, but the suggestion by Dr MacDonald of making some kind of collage of these images is a very sound one. It is more than likely that this would be the only way for me to render such complex three-dimensional line images using Adobe Illustrator. In my imagination, one continuous single graphical vector file would seem to require a huge amount of memory on the face of it, but now after subsequent reflection and deliberation, because these are vector diagrams, based on algorithms of plotted lines, rather than individual pixel rendered bitmap images (where more detailed resolution simply requires a much greater magnification of memory), such vector plots require far less memory overhead. Indeed if these images are chopped up as frames for collages, then file size is reduced even further.

3-D Virtual reality through digital media production has taken leaps and bounds in technology over the past 10 years or so. Virtual reality glasses such as Oculus Rift and others maybe a route forward. Perhaps my own confidence is lacking somewhat because I believe that such a project is growing beyond my own limits of capability. The fear of this being much bigger and my capability worries me because of time constraints. Nevertheless, there is nothing to stop me considering putting some foundational ideas in place now to pursue at a later date, potentially after my Master's degrees complete. I will be a practising artist after all!

Dr MacDonald reassured me though, that it is within the nature of my project that it is expansive. In trying to visualise the topology of my project, Juliet reaffirmed that there seems to be a significant expansiveness to it. While planning for a PhD for example, this expansive trend should be avoided, however at Masters level, in my own project specifically, this expansive progress is part of my creative works. A lot of my project is about connecting things and so it is inevitable that not only the subject matter but points of interests expand. Those connections must go outwards to some extent and I am reminded here of the idea taken from the book Lines, by Tim Ingold, (2007),  where the author explained that her father was a microbiologist. He often drew representations of fungal mycelium. This idea of expanding fronds of an organism has been articulated before in a previous blog, but again it is reassuring to reflect upon it again here.

I recognise that it is a difficult balance in trying to strip things out to a minimum, such as colour detail and so on, but I know that I'm so inquisitive, curiosity gets the better of me all the time, and my nature seems to be to keep looking for more, and I struggle in holding back. However again, Juliet kindly reassured me by suggesting that this is simply this part of my own process. I should therefore not worry too much, and just accept that it is the nature and part of this project that I continue to connect things and bring in new subjects, research material and nodes of connectivity. Equally, these encourage different modes of thinking through what I'm trying to do too.this is no bad thing.

Subsequently, just thinking about this last paragraph, the idea of knowledge (and Ydrassil, the mythical Tree of Knowledge), when viewed from above, it's zenith, contained in my mind and my visual image of connections and nodes reminds me of networks within the brain, the axions and synapses at a microscopic level re-occur in the image of mycelium.

References:

Haraway, D.S. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilage of Partial Perspective. (In Feminist Studies, Vol 14, No. 3. Autumn 1988), pp. 575-599 [Retrieved from www.Jstor.org].
Ingold, T. (2007, 2016 ed). Lines: A brief History, Routledge, London.

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