Post-photography and Archaeology

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Eron Rauch’ post-photography in video games: “This panorama is made up of screenshots of every player corpse I came across while I levelled up my character in World of Warcraft.”

Last week I submitted my CAA paper, The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography, for publication in the proceedings. It’s the second paper on photography and archaeology that I’ve submitted this month; the first was Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement and covered the analog to digital transition, with some added content/semiotic analysis thrown in for good measure. It’s nice finally submitting some of this stuff for publication, and I still have a fairly large unpublished chunk to go. Let’s hope it gets through the peer review process relatively unscathed.

The Death & Afterlife paper deals with a second “wave” of digital photography in archaeology. I argue that the first wave was essentially skeuomorphic–that it replicated composition and content from film photography, just more and faster. The second wave has moved into what has been termed the post-photographic, and I explore what this means in terms of 3D photogrammetric reconstruction, drone photography, and geomedia. Though photography in archaeology is becoming increasingly algorithmic, with more layers processed and varying results at the end, the output at the end still points toward photography. For example, your nice 3D Photoscan model is still presented as a 2D image in your report. What will be truly revolutionary is when publication no longer flattens archaeology.

Photography in archaeology is, as Martin Lister states, “a residual cultural practice…technically dead but still animate,” a trait I cite in the title of my article. Photography is incredibly useful to think with, especially as we try to understand the place of digital media in archaeological interpretation. Photography is deeply implicated in the history of archaeology, both as products and projects of modernity. In my conclusions, I discuss the post-photographic in terms of the post-digital; I cite the post-digital as a shift akin to the postcolonial, what Florian Cramer calls a “critically revised continuation” rather than a turn toward the analog. Jeremy Huggett has posted some thoughts regarding the postdigital as well.

I was still thinking of all of this when I came across Eron Rauch’s A Land to Die in, a momento mori for video games–photographs of all the corpses of other players that he came across in World of Warcraft. His photographs remind me of those taken on Mount Everest, of people felled in mid-adventure, “a constant reminder of the masses of other people and their stories; some who conquered, some who fell, a million virtual Beowulfs”. I think about this as I make avatars of past people and machinima of past landscapes that end up becoming still images in powerpoint slides. Not-quite-photographs of not-quite-right reconstructions of dead people, all coming together in pixels. Can we still ask: what does the archaeological post-digital photograph want?

EAA Istanbul: A Blast from the (Çatalhöyük) Past

Tea on the Ferry across the Bosphorus, taken in 2006 (!)
Tea on the Ferry across the Bosphorus, taken in 2006 (!)

For the first time ever, I’m attending the European Association for Archaeology (EAA) meetings, 10-14 September in Istanbul. Istanbul is probably my favorite city in the world, so full of chaos and color, heady intellectualism, romanticism and a past that stretches deep beneath the Bosphorus. I don’t think my Turkophilia sits all that well with my Turkish friends, who have to struggle with the conservatism of Erdoğan’s government and have to fight in the streets to protect themselves from his police state. I worry about my friends in Turkey, I worry about Turkey’s slide into militancy, but I also believe in them and their passionate resistance and refusal to be silenced.

So my joy to be returning to Turkey is somewhat tempered by the ongoing struggles of the Gezi protesters and Erdoğan’s move from prime minister to president, with the accompanying fears of a cult of personality that will elevate him into an autocratic regime.

Whew–after that fairly heavy-handed politicizing, I’ll be presenting in two sessions, both about previous (slightly old & moldy) work that I did regarding Çatalhöyük that I need to publish.

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First is a paper:  The Life and Death of Virtual Çatalhöyük in Second Life

Abstract: From 2007 until 2011, OKAPI Island in Second Life hosted a virtual reconstruction of the Neolithic village of Çatalhöyük. This simulation included reconstructions of current excavations, past and present lifeways at the site, a virtual museum, and hosted several forums and open days. Using the reconstruction we hosted a mixed reality session,filmed machinima, held university lectures, and collaborative virtual building sessions. OKAPI Island in Second Life was an incredibly fertile proving ground for re-thinking our assumptions about archaeological interpretation and outreach.When Linden Labs, the makers of Second Life, decided to end the educational discount that made OKAPI Island affordable, a team of students and professors at the University of California, Berkeley made the effort to preserve the virtual reconstruction by record, a process that is familiar to archaeologists. After the “death” of a virtual reconstruction of an archaeological site, what lessons can be learned about digital materiality and preservation? How can we use the example of Çatalhöyük in Second Life to inform our future reconstructions? What is next for collaborative virtual work in archaeology?

Since my fairly effusive 2009 work in Archaeologies, (Re)Building in Second Life: Changing Virtual Reality in Archaeology, I wanted to add a coda–so many virtual reconstructions and digital projects are built, published, and we are left to puzzle out what happened later, so I wanted to wrap up all the work that we’d done and the eventual fate of the reconstruction.

I’m also very happy to be putting together a poster with my good friend and colleague Jason Quinlan:

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Title: Fifty Years of Visualization at Çatalhöyük

Abstract: Çatalhöyük, a spectacular archaeological site in central Turkey, has been the subject of visual interpretation for half a century. From Ian Todd’s photography performed during James Mellaart’s 1960s excavations to Ian Hodder’s work since 1993, a vast visual record has accumulated of over 100,000 images. The collection records not only site excavation and finds but also embedded changes recorded in the archive’s collective “metadata” in both technical and theoretical approaches to site photography over time.

In this poster we explore the changes in technology, methodology and theory at the site as seen in the changing modes of visualization at Çatalhöyük. Through quantitative and qualitative analyses of the visual record, we provide insights regarding the contrasting archaeological processes at the site. Finally, we look to the future of visual interpretation at Çatalhöyük.

I’m happy to finally be able to draw a line underneath my work at Çatalhöyük and get more of my dissertation research out the door!

Furnishing the Neolithic

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The Porno Baskets of Çatalhöyük

For Cal Day I’m furnishing the inside of one of the reconstructed Neolithic houses so we can change up our tour a little bit from our open house.  In a lot of ways it has been a great mental exercise–having to figure out if I thought the ceiling was plastered, move the ladder to the correct angle coming out the top, decide if I wanted to put a goat/sheep or three on top of the house, things like that.  I’m still not very good at the build tools in Second Life yet and we’re running out of time, so I’ve been getting things as close as possible on my own and then faking the rest with different purchases.  Of course, these purchases are a little…off from what we know about the artifacts, but I’m doing my best.

I went hunting for baskets the other day, with the lovely preserved basket impressions that we get in the middens in mind, and found a few serviceable examples.  The island where I got them was medieval themed and I thought nothing much of it until I found that most of the materials had some kind of action programmed into them.  The plates turned you into a serving wench, the bucket made you scrub the floor, things like that.  An interesting take on Latour, if I do say so myself.

Except…when I saw some of the other items.  And I’m not just talking about the bed!  I figured out that the whole island was themed after a series of science fiction books set in a world called “Gor” where the women are enslaved to the men as part of a “naturalized” social order.  Well then!

So, these baskets.  While they don’t have anything preprogrammed into them–at least I’m somewhat certain of that–they are basically BDSM set dressing.

I’m reclaiming them for the Neolithic.