3. Contextual Research and Reflection

Notes on recent research and reading

Suggested by my tutor during Discussion on Planning

Alan Warburton

Since 2010 Warburton has worked both as an independent artist and as an animation freelancer and his CGI films have been exhibited widely. I have already written about his video Goodbye Uncanny Valley which includes work from several artists.

His blog, which he began in 2008 as a repository for thoughts, can be found here. He makes an interesting comment, ‘so further back you go, the more naive it gets’, and I appreciated that comment because it gives me some hope that I might improve too in time. If you go way back to an entry on 15 July 2015 Warburton writes on, How I got into CGI (and why the arts needs it).  He writes on the effect on him of feeling slightly different within his group; the discomfort of participating, “in a culture that privileges and normalises problematic images of gender” and being expected to decide between the two options of whether he wanted to work in commercials or film when he thought he was there to discover that. That particular blog post is well-worth a read because he has a lot more to say on the different effects of a new technology, plus

There’s a strange hypocrisy that new technology alienates us from the truth yet technology has been part of who we are for tens of thousands of years. We all feel this hypocrisy in our seemingly objective preference for marginally more primitive technologies.

That’s something I’ve been continually reminding myself on.

For relaxation I very much enjoyed his video interpretation of some of the music of composer Johann Sebastian Bach which can be found here

John Gerrard

He creates large scale works in the form of computer simulations which, “ … frequently refer to structures of power and networks of energy that have made possible the expansion of human endeavour in the past century”. He uses sophisticated computer software and algorithms to create virtual landscapes that simulate authentic sites as time passes. This video explains some of his techniques.


this is far beyond my capabilities and what I’ve seen on Second Life so far.

Artists represented by Carroll Fletcher Gallery

The two partners, Jonathon Carroll and Steve Fletcher have now restructured into two independent entities – Carroll to set up a new commercial business and Fletcher to run a non-profit named the Artists’ development Agency.  The original website  is extant though and this led me to the work of Richard Walker  who creates videos, photographs, text works, his own music, and performances to portray an obsessive relationship with landscape, “I think, or I hope, that the viewer becomes simultaneously pushed away and pulled towards the landscape”.   He used two channel video for sometimes I like you more than othertimes, 2008  and this is something I have wanted to experiment with for quite a while – different places, the same person at different times. I want to remember his work for when I begin the Landscape module.

Some other Artists

David Claerbout

I think it was my fellow student Sarah-Jane who pointed me towards this artist a while ago. Claerbout works in photography, video, sound, drawing and digital arts. In one work he creates a new film the Pure Necessity which transforms Disney’s 1967 animated movie of Jungle Book into a completely different film which dispenses with “all ‘humanization’ of the animals, even the human Mowgli, so that the animals ‘behave instead in a manner befitting their species’. Basically he ‘takes the life (animation) out of the Jungle Book animals.

He  wrote an article here  which is very relevant for me and also takes me back to Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard.  Claerbout compares the transformation of photography to that of the music industry over the last fifteen years – moving from what appears purely technical to “seeing the world the way it wants to be seen by us”.  He refers to “the radical conservatism of 3-D” – were “so many sciences would come together to form a mighty bastion of pictorial, “realistic” conservatism” – for example the way in which new techniques led to his studio resembling an animation studio which, itself, began to resemble a painting studio and so there was an ‘intense overlap between Western historical painting and cinematic techniques”. (I’m thinking perhaps of Jeff Wall here and other contemporary photograpehrs who work in a similar fashion). Claerbout points out the decisions which have to be made when working in pictorial 3-D – often created from memory, after the fact, based on documents – what season, what geographical area – pretty much like tableau painting (I also recalled Second Life when reading this).

“This total fabrication implies that we are ‘observing from memory’ and brings with it a sense of nostalgia and a feeling of loss, of having given up on a naïve perception that supposedly happened spontaneously, without thinking”. A scan, for example, ‘literally moves like a mole in the dark” without needing the daylight that is an essential condition in photography. Now I don’t entirely agree with that because a scan uses light, albeit artificial,  and, of course, some photography uses artificial light. There’s more though and I know I’ll return to this article.

Olaf Otto Becker

Becker’s project Reading the Landscape (2008-2014)  documents the changes over time in the primary forests of Indonesia and Malaysia – showing “intact nature, ravaged nature, and artificial nature”. The ravaging of methods such as deforestation and slash and burn looks so brutal.  In view of my current assignment I was particularly interested in ‘artificial nature’ –a landscape such as Supertree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore (10/12) which looks so unreal like something out of science fiction – towering columns with vegetation growing up the column, inside a painted metallic scaffold that, itself, branches out at the top; nature trails skyscrapers containing gardens. In fact here’s a short video I found on YouTube


This is what we do – we destroy parts of nature and then re-build it in our own image.

Trevor Paglen

Paglen is an artist and geographer. He describes himself as a landscape artist – he is, but with a difference! He aims to photograph ‘the unseen political geography of our times’. – not by utilising Google images but using special lenses aimed in the sky or far off military bases.  An article in the Guardian (Tim Adams, 2017) informs me that he intends to launch his own satellite in April this year and with it, the world’s first “space sculpture” – a man-made star that should be visible for a few months. He was named one of the 2017 recipients of the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ with a stipend of £470,00 over five years, so he won’t be short of money to realise his dream and pay for his assistants.

I’m always interested in the way in which an artist’s background shapes how they see and portray the world bearing in mind that the photograph is often viewed as a self-portrait of the photographer –and Tim Adams refers to Paglen’s background in his article.  Born on an air force base where his father was an ophthalmologist; the family moving around air bases in the US when Paglen was young until they settled at an airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany. As a student Paglen studied the philosophy of religion; fine art; then a PhD in geography; also playing bass in a punk band at one point and being into the Californian surf culture. That’s a rich mix of diverse influences.

Paglen has photographed secret prisons; worked to document classified satellites and also explored the ocean floor to photograph underwater fiber optic cables. He talks his work on “The Atlas of Invisible Images” below – it’s fascinating.



I certainly couldn’t approach his depth of talent but some of his work reminded me that you don’t necessarily have to have sophisticated equipment to explore the unseen and represent what  ‘must not be represented’. His work Symbology for instance, looks at the uniform and insignia in military culture and how these depict, “one’s affiliation with what defense-industry insiders call the “black world”” of deeply-held secrets.

Ruud van Empel

My fellow student Jonathon suggested I have a look at this artist who combines collages of self-made photographs using Photoshop to create idealized representations of people and landscape. To me these are approaching on the Uncanny and Uncanny Valley both – with wide-eyed children placed in hyper realistic landscapes that give rise to a slightly uneasy feeling, at least for me. Some such as here  and here  have a look of naif art whilst others are reminiscent of Dutch still-life. The novel and film the Miniaturist came into my head as well – those tiny dolls house figures/replicas that act as alter egos.

Sophia, the Robot

Staying with the Uncanny/Uncanny Valley theme. Sarah-Jane also sent me a link to a video on the Hanson Robotics website and their latest and most advanced robot which is, apparently, a media darling and sought-after speaker in business. The company believes that their genius machines can evolve to solve world problems too complex for humans to solve themselves. Sophia reminded me of some of the Avatars in Second Life which is why I’m noting her here.








The “Uncanny Valley” and Avatars

The word Avatar comes from Sanskrit avatāra a passing down, equivalent to ava down + -tāra a passing over. In Hindu mythology this is the deliberate descent by a god into the land of mortals, usually for the purpose of destroying evil or leading the righteous down the right path. Most often associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, though the concept has been applied to other deities. Similar concepts are found in other religions – one thinks of the Angel Gabriel for example. The word then came to be used for a computer representation of a user and this dates back to at least 1985 when it was used for a character in the Ultima series of computer games. To begin with the goal was to become ‘the avatar” but later games assumed you were an avatar. There are many types of ‘avatar” varying from a small square-shaped area close to the user’s forum post where the avatar is placed to a much larger representation of a person/creature which can be customized. These avatars can be realistic representations of who the person is and what they are doing (helped by motion-capture technologies that mirror every movement) or they can be strategically altered to show only what you want them to.

I first came across the concept of the “Uncanny Valley” when looking at the work of Alan Warburton, following one of my tutor’s recommendations.   In his video work Goodbye Uncanny Valley (2017) , Warburton looks at the background and current state of  of photoreal CGI. In his introductory statement he writes – “computer graphics have conquered the Uncanny Valley, that strange place where things are almost real. .….but not quite”

Subsequently, whilst searching for links to the history of dolls, avatars and robots to gain more background context for my assignment, I came across this concept again and discovered there is more to it. Information was gained to begin with from a comprehensive a Wikipedia entry and I then did further research. This concept was proposed by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor and translated from Japanese to “uncanny valley” in the book Robots; Fact, Fiction, and Prediction, written by Jasia Reichardt (1978). This is linked with the concept of the ‘uncanny’-  Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud (see an earlier post here). The hypothesis is that observers’ emotional response to a robot becomes increasingly positive as the appearance of a robot is made more human until it reaches a point beyond which the response becomes revulsion. This reaction reverses as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from a human being.  The ‘uncanny valley” is thus that in between stage. Presumably it varies between individuals. Technologies have advanced greatly since the late 1970s, with more sophisticated robots and lifelike Avatars but the “Uncanny Valley” still needs to be considered and overcome. This YouTube video from Mashable explains further


Charles Darwin noticed a similar effect when looking at a particular snake, referring to the relative shapes and positions of the pupil of the eye, jaws and nose . the writer Jamais Cascio also noted a similar effect that occurs with body modifications beyond what would normally be possible. Examples are also given from several films using computer-generated imagery (CGI). This made me think as well of the film Avatar.  It took me quite a while to get used to the faces of the Na’vi beings. It just occurred to me though that, maybe, it’s that when a robot’s face most resembles a snake’s head that this revulsion occurs and is due to a primal recognition of danger in a snake shape – maybe even the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden connects here.

Mori’s theory was examined more closely in a paper by E. V. Pujals and N. Buffington, Secrets of The Cabbage Patch: Pediophobia and The Fear of The Inanimate (2007 . their view is that Mori’s hypothesis can relate to all inanimate objects that, in one form or another, become or seem to be animate. This is linked to a perennial human desire for playthings to become truly alive. Examples are given of the myth of Pygmalion who fell in love with a statue he sculpted and the goddess Aphrodite brought it to life in response to his prayers. This fantasy can also be found in Hoffman’s the Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816); Pixar’s Toy Story.

This fantasy of toys becoming alive is rooted in the child’s emotional attachment to playthings and the way in which their ways of relating thus ‘prove particular to their respective individual needs’, which I would say are also influenced by social/cultural reinforcement, given that the authors provide the examples of baby dolls in the early 1900’s promoting nurturing and companionship tendencies connected with ‘mothering’  whilst in the early 1960’s Barbie dolls were seen as a symbol of freedom from future responsibilities of motherhood. Also, ‘Star Wars figurines allowed boys to play God in orchestrating miniature worlds of high tech adventures’. Pujals and Buffington go on to contend that, despite this strong attachment to playthings, literature and films ‘perverted the toy and created disquieting versions of the same lovable characters that inspire fantasy’, even in Toy Story with its reanimation of dismembered toys in one particular scene – the threshold of horror for Sid (the sadistic boy) being when Woody speaks to him using facial expressions.

However, Pujals and Buffington perceive limitations in Mori’s hypothesis in that adults and children’s fears are not necessarily linked; they have different perspectives on life. The fear that Mori’s hypothesis explains, could suggest that it is due to the great awareness of adulthood, that adults are more afraid, afraid of the unknown because their knowledge does not extend to the areas that concern the respective unknown or afraid of the already known because they understand the full gravity of its implications.  Adults have a need for order and search out boundaries. They provide evidence for this, e.g. Andy, the child, is unfazed by Chuckie coming to life.

Design guidelines have been written including attention to the proportion of facial features skin texture detail and changing features to a more cartoon-like style also eliminated the uncanny (Tinwell et al  2010:05). As more and more characters now appear in animation and video games factors such as form of motion, sound features, timing and facial animation (particularly in the upper part of the face) also contribute to an uncanny valley effect. Tinwell et all reported that  “The uncanny may be related to the importance of being able to swiftly and accurately detect the emotion being expressed by another as it helps us to predict their likely behaviour……” the results of the current study also provide fairly compelling evidence that perception of the uncanny in virtual characters displaying inadequate facial animation is greatly influenced by the type of emotion the character is portraying ( 2010 :25) they concluded, “Overall, the results indicate that attempts to embed truly authentic and convincing human-like affective signals in video game characters still has some way to go”.

The study referred to above focussed on video games. Below is a video looking at the way in which film-makers work to find ways around the uncanny valley effect.




Pujals, E.V. and Buffington (2007) PWR 2; Rhetoric of the Monstrous accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20081002162053/http://www.stanford.edu/~njbuff/conference_winter07/papers/elena_pujals.pdf
Tinwell, A et al (2011) Facial Expression of Emotion and Perception of the Uncanny Valley in Virtual Characters, Accessed through https://www.academia.edu/1144696/Tinwell_A._Grimshaw_M._Williams_A._and_Abdel_Nabi_D._2011_Facial_expression_of_emotion_and_perception_of_the_Uncanny_Valley_in_virtual_characters_Computers_in_Human_Behavior_vol._27_no._2_pp._741-749 )

Further thoughts on Landscape

What does Landscape mean to me?

In one of my earlier posts I wrote that I’m most attracted to small wooded areas, within walking distance from home. These are places where nature has more or less been allowed some freedom to be itself. The air is always clearer there amongst the trees and I’m aware I’m breathing more deeply. I’ve been exploring and portraying ‘landscape’ almost since I began studying with OCA. To begin with I photographed what I saw then, in Context & Narrative, with the encouragement of my tutor, I began to interact more directly with nature – see here  and here . It seemed that, through landscape, I was ‘finding my voice’.

During this current Module I focussed my first assignment around a poppy field   but subsequently became absorbed in my personal archives and got somewhat lost in reading and research, although I did create some ‘personal’ projects around my local Copse, including videos. Holga photographs  and a project in July last year which I called Interrupted Landscape: Weftwood where I documented, in image and videos, the progress of my creation of an installation  in part of the Copse – to be the covering of a dilapidated garden seat with woven red wool. This project terminated rather oddly at the beginning of September 2017 when I discovered that other/s had dismantled that part of the copse, including the garden seat.  I concluded that I had, somehow, been seeking a response from other people who use the Copse (in the way I had previously by hanging some of my photographs on tree branches) but the response had been unsettling as a different kind of installation had replaced mine! I intended to do something with leftover wool but it still awaits me.

So where does that leave me with my relationship with landscape at the moment? I still photograph what interests me in environment using Instagram as a posting site. The poppy field, changed markedly in Autumn last year and I have videos of the changes over time there which I intend to put together before formal Assessment as an addition to my first Assignment.

Why do I photograph the same scenes over and over again?

Well, firstly, the landscape changes as the seasons change so there is always something new to see and photograph. Landscape can act as both metaphor and alter ego – I’ve certainly used it as both in the past – to combine with poems I’ve written or read. Trees always seem to have had deep meanings for us human beings – The tree of llfe in so many different World mythologies; the apple tree in the Garden of Eden; the tree of knowledge; the sacred groves which probably preceded the building of Churches with their soaring domes directing our eyes towards the heavens and the family tree of genealogy. I also got to thinking of the way in which we anthromorphize trees, see faces in them, give them human attributes.

I know there are psychological explanations for why this happens, but could there be another connection?

There are so many different motivations for photographing trees, but I still couldnot find the words to explain why I kept photographing the same places almost compulsively.  I recently found a photographer who provided an explanation I could identify with.  In a video here photographer Sean McFarland talks about Landscape as a failed recordHe talks of the way in which photographers have separated themselves from the landscape (in the USA, but I think it applies in the UK as well) through being ‘complicit in a lot of empty formalism’ and participating in a tradition of the history and destruction of the Western United States’. All that has causued us to ‘deeply other’ the landscape and to separate ourselves from being able to emotionally experience it. He describes viewing the splendour of a landscape such as Yosemite Falls, taking a photograph of it which is physical yet is a failure in terms of representing how it felt, especially if you’re showing it to someone else and trying to convince them that it was a magical experience. One of his strategies was to photograph the Falls multiple times to make it more than it was, and then creating a cynatope . – using photography as a ‘failed record’.  He has also created psrismatic images where the visual spectrum of red blue and green starts to reveal itself and be seen separately so maybe the photograph ‘can maybe turn into a synesthetic object’, allowing access to a world maybe beyond the visual. His visual blog is here .

What do I want to say about Landscape with new work?

I realised that constantly photographing the same scene was also my own attempt to find a way of emotional capture, without words and perhaps why I have used different camera techniques and other strategies such as cyanotypes.  I had certainly thought that cyanotypes wouldn’t be the way to go for this Assignment, even though I do enjoy creating those deep blue images. Sean McFarland’s prismatic images looked pretty much like 3D to me when I viewed them with my 3D glasses, so I created one initially of a branch structure in the woodland, and then had a go with one of the bonsai trees as, currently, the bonsai tree is representing landscape for me – the way we mould nature to our own image and also as a a reflection of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation. 3D glass needed to view these onscreen.



This might be a way to expand my Assignment 4 into Assignment 5 – I’ll wait and see what my tutor thinks.

In a later post I will write about my research into artists suggested by my tutor; some I have discovered myself and literature about the nature of trees. Alongside my photography of bonsai and reading/research, I have also been exploring Second Life and looking at how landscape is represented there.


Jean Baudrillard Part I

My ongoing understanding of Jean Baudrillard

 The beginning of my attempts to make sense of Jean Baudrillard’s writings so that I may eventually explore how they relate to my journey into Second Life.

Whilst Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan were inspired by movies and television, Jean Baudrillard (who was influenced by McLuhan) described those using the computer as being lost in their own terminals. Cynthia Freeland describes this as “[….] a ‘terminal’ philosophy embracing millennial disillusionment.” (C. Freeland 2001:130).

Jean Baudrillard was born in Reims, France in 1929 at the beginning of what was termed ’The Great Depression” in America – an economic crisis that also affected Europe. He was the first of his working-class family to go to University, the Sorbonne, where he studied German language and literature before working as a teacher (from 1960 until 1966) alongside publishing literature reviews and translations of German authors. Whilst teaching German he began studying sociology, publishing his doctoral thesis in 1968, and went on to teach sociology at the University of Paris X Nanterre, where he eventually became a professor before moving to teach at the Universite de Paris-IX Dauphine in 1986, from which point he began to move away from sociology as a discipline although retaining his links with the academic world. In 1970 Baudrillard began making trips to the United States and also to Japan (where he was given his first camera in 1981). He became an intellectual celebrity, writing books and attending conferences. He appears to have had many intellectual influences from a variety of disciplines, including Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Roland Barthes and Marshall McLuhan. I’m not going to go into further detail here but summary information on Baudrillard’s life and ideas can be found here on the website of the European Graduate School, Switzerland, where he taught from its early beginnings in 1994 to his death in March 2007

Baudrillard is said to have been influenced by the concept of pataphysics, introduced to him through a philosophy professor, whilst at high school.  This concept is a literary trope invented by the French writer and playwright Alfred Jarry in the book Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, where Jarry plays around with conventional concepts and interpretations of reality and the ‘neo-science of imaginary solutions’ expounded by his characters. “From pataphysics Baudrillard learned to mock science, write cryptically and allusively and seek politically inutility” (G. Genosko, p. 150 in R.G. Smith (Ed) 2010). Well that certainly provides an explanation for my difficulty in understanding Baudrillard’s concepts.

His essay Simulacra and Simulation was written in 1981 – the year he was given his first camera.   Simulation is one of his key concepts. Its Latin root means ‘to copy’ but the word itself has come to have slightly different meanings/ connotations all of which are present In Bauadrillard’s usage of the word. In modern English it came to have the connotation of falseness and pretence and has now come to mean creating an analogue or mathematical model of something, “ …  in order to study how it operates  via artificially or abstractly producing its effects.  With the advent of ‘realistic’ media …… it has also come to refer to an audio-visual experience that artfully mimics but otherwise has no connection with the reality it presents as in a flight simulator used in pilot training….” (Wernick, A in R.G. Smith 2010:1980). This kind of experience may both heighten the senses and be more real than real – i.e. hyper-real. I began to think here about the artist Matt Collishaw’s recent virtual reality Exhibition Thresholds (2017)  where he created a digitally reconstructed room to re-stage the 1839 Exhibition where William Henry Talbot Fox first presented his photographic prints to the public.

What Baudrillard was pointing towards was the idea of a copy which is not only indistinguishable from the original but such that the distinction between the two disappears. A simulacrum (a term borrowed from Plato) is a simulated representation which has no original, so bears no relation to any reality and is a means of concealing the absence of a reality.

To begin with Baudrillard provided three orders of simulacra (J. Baudrillard 1981:121)

  1. An individual artefact – e.g. handmade copy of a painting –naturalist, founded on the imager, imitation and counterfeit. Would this apply to the art of Bonsai?
  2. A mechanically produced copy such as a photograph or sound-recording where all copies are identical to each other – founded on energy force, its materialization by the machine and in the whole system of production
  3. Production of a mechanically reproducible copy which has no original outside the composite process of its studio production – founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game. This could fit with Second Life, perhaps also Matt Collishaw’s work, although ….

In 1987, Baudrillard also conceptualised a fourth stage

4.  ‘The fractal stage’ – the mechanically reproducible product is not a unique series but an infinite array of possibilities generated by models.

Daniel Chandler (2007:81) translates the four stages/phases of the image as:-

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever; it is its own simulacrum

I can’t find a description of what Baudrillard considers to be the Real – yet everything he writes appears to be based on that notion. Daniel Chandler recognizes this criticism, “the semiotic stance which problematizes reality and emphasizes mediation and convention is sometimes criticised as extreme ‘cultural relativism’ by realists – such critics often object to an apparent sidelining of referential concerns such as ‘accuracy’ (ibid)

I do agree with Chandler that we certainly experience much of our world through the media of television, films and newspapers etc.  Actually we used to experience the world outside our immediate environment through the Church, village gossip and ‘news’ from strangers who were passing through, I’m thinking, but I’m imagining that it might have been less contradictory. In the present we are bombarded daily with competing versions of ‘truth’, accusations of fake news etc and I don’t, at this stage,  want to dive into a more expanded exploration of Baudrillard’s concepts, although I have researched some counter- viewpoints.  In the meantime I’m going to rest with Chandler’s view that,  “Semiotics helps us to not take representations for granted as reflections of reality, enabling us to take them apart and consider whose realities they represent” (ibid 2007:82).



Baudrillard, J (1994) Simulcra and Simulation. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
Chandler, D (2007) Semiotics: the Basics (2nd Edition) Abingdon: Routledge
Freeland, C (2001  )  Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction Oxford,. Oxford University Press
Smith, R.G. (Ed) (2010) The Baudrillard Dictionary: Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press