Monday, 22 February 2010

Underwater Photography

Preparing for "Schwerinblicke - Künstlersichten", Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Germany, April 2010

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ground Rules or Guidelines?

There are two mainstream films that contain similar phrases about rules and guidelines. The first is the 1984 film Ghostbusters where the character played by Bill Murray is on the verge of being seduced by a possessed Sigourney Weaver. He says: “I make it a rule never to sleep with possessed people…They're really more guidelines than actual rules”. The second is Pirates of the Caribbean where a ghostly Capt Barbossa explains the subtleties of the pirates code: “the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. Interestingly, both uses of the phrase are employed during a verbal exchange between the "normal" and the paranormal; between a world whose physical rules govern everything we do and a realm where rules and reality itself evaporate into meaninglessness.

In our world of gravity, time, dimension and light we’ve created countless measures to gauge and quantify both limits and extent. We’ve explored and discovered many of the underlying principles of a multitude of physical processes and phenomena. We’ve mapped the heavens to infinitesimal detail and subdivided atoms to ever diminishing fractions of existence, all with the laudable aim of establishing the fundamental laws of reality and gaining a deeper understanding of this contingent moment which we so precariously inhabit. In our certitude of the value and applicability of these truths we’ve reproduced our conceptions of fact and codified them in social laws, rules and codes of conduct such that there’s barely a facet of human endeavour which isn't regulated, modified or influenced by our perceptions. But despite the breadth and dimension of our wisdom there is still much that is not dreamt of in our philosophy, or as Wittgenstein wrote: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” And yet we persist in using our understanding of the ubiquity and value of rules as a closely woven net to catch and ensnare all kinds of intangible creatures, both forbidding and innocent. My question is this: what rare life are we suffocating into the bargain - what gentle, unassuming and fragile creatures are we casting out as useless flotsam in our desire for control and mastery?

Civility, propriety, courtesy, common decency - call it what you will - few would disagree that such things are being eroded in contemporary society. For some people the solution is to put up walls and to create boundaries and rules which protect themselves and the people they care for from perceived danger and harm. For others, such things are just an inevitability, a consequence of social change and human progress. But we shouldn't submit to such reactionary or deterministic conclusions, especially since the solution is part of what makes us who we are: the ways we treat people and the way we wish to be treated.
"The knowledge of courtesy is a very necessary study; like grace and beauty, it breeds mutual liking." Montaigne
The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that man, in a state of nature, was ruled by the most primitive and aggressive instincts. The solution therefore, for Hobbs, was that man requires the authority of law to attain civil society:"law is established only by artificial Power, and Reason enfranchised only by Authority."
In his inspiring book “The Gift” the poet and writer Lewis Hyde examines this naïve but still widespread notion and contrasts it with his own research on gift exchange and, in this example, an anarchist perspective:
"The anarchist begins his politics on a different note and comes to a different resolution. Anarchist theory is like an aqua regia applied to the state and its machinery to see how much might be stripped away before people begin to suffer more than they do under law and authority. The anarchist begins with the assumption of man's good nature, contending that law itself is a "cause" of crime."
Hyde quotes James Joll’s 1979 essay on the anarchist movement which discusses anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s ethnographic work which contradicts Hobbes unfounded claims from an empirical standpoint:
“The primitive tribes he observed seemed to have customs and instincts which regulated their social life without the need of government or laws. For Kropotkin, primitive society, so far from providing an example of Hobbesian conflict and of the war of all against all, showed rather that cooperation and 'mutual aid' were the natural state of man if left uncorrupted by government and by laws which result from the 'desire of the ruling class to give permanence to customs imposed by themselves for their own advantage', whereas all that is necessary for harmonious living are 'those customs useful for society. . . which have no need of law to insure respect'.”
Hyde concludes the chapter opposing Hobbes
once again
“It is this double conceit – first, that passion will undo social life and, second, that coercion will preserve it – that anarchist philosophy and the traditions of gift exchange call into question. The former imagines and the latter stand witness to a social life motivated by feeling and nonetheless marked by structure, durability, and cohesion. There are many connections between anarchist theory and gift exchange as an economy – both assume that man is generous, or at least cooperative, “in nature”; both shun centralised power; both are best fitted to small groups and loose federations; both rely on contracts of the heart over codified contract, and so on. But, above all, it seems correct to speak of the gift as anarchist property because both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.”
In recent times Anarchy has become synonymous with chaos and civil disorder and much of it's insight has therefore been obscured, but the discerning belief that human beings are essentially good is one from which we have a great deal to learn. Whereas, if we continue to propagate the Hobbesian view, that the only way to manage our social relations is by extending the rule of law into every quarter, then George Orwell's bleak vision is even closer than we had ever dared to believe. Certainly rules are necessary in many instances to protect people from injury and danger; the Highway Code for instance or Health and Safety measures (though these can also be raised to ridiculous levels of absurdity), but there are many walks of life where an over emphasis on rules simply infringes freedom, debilitates creativity and smothers the delicate value of what I have called The Social Gift.

We need as few rules in the educational context as possible - especially in an art school. The belief that it's important to institute conspicuous regulatory measures, no matter how nuanced, seems to me to be both retrogressive and antithetical to the true nature of high-quality education. Education should aim to instil the very best in people, which means that education itself should uphold the very best principles, including genuine trust and mutual respect. If we choose to employ impoverished ad-hoc solutions like ground rules then what underlying message are we really promoting? But if we must regulate our fellow citizens (students) in our higher institutions of learning, let's use guidelines instead and leave ground rules to the ghosts of meaninglessness or cast them adrift on the sea of unnecessary, humorless and ill-conceived errors.

Friday, 5 February 2010

In Defence of Plagiarism

Ian Hamilton Finlay • Gary Hincks

"Originality is the art of concealing your sources."
Albert Einstein *1
I'm not at all convinced that plagiarism is an entirely bad or avoidable thing. However, if you're a student reading this in the hope of discovering a handy excuse to steal someone else's work I'm afraid I'm probably going to disappoint you.

Artists, musicians and writers etc have always copied each other. The list of rip-offs, cribs, copies, samples, purloined fragments, pilfered references, and stolen ideas is probably longer than history itself. People have always been influenced and inspired by one another and they have always copied, emulated, mimicked and borrowed. In turn they have helped disseminate ideas and provided materials, tools and techniques which enable new ways of being, understanding and communicating. Language itself is a battleground of plagiarism. Practically every word we speak or write has been invented or evolved by generations before us. We quite naturally build upon other people's work and this human tendency to recycle the energy and invention of others allows us to improve our environment and, in turn, to provide new foundations upon which others may continue to construct and invent. In this context, to believe that anything is truly original is surely delusional.
"By sharing of ideas, animals, and most especially humans, pool the ability of their group. The pinnacles of intelligence are exploited by the entire society. In human culture, this has led to the emergence of a kind of communal intellect the Collective Mind of man - that has pushed forward his biological progress at a prodigious rate" (Blakemore, C. (1977). Mechanics of, Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., p. 117).
There are frequent occasions when we simply assimilate new information, ideas and beliefs because they closely approximate or elaborate our own. Likewise, our memories are so porous that we often adopt other peoples' ideas without ever taking note of our sources. In everyday experience we’re rarely, if ever, tested with reference to our sources of information and opinion, and we’re often blithely unaware and unconcerned whether some idea is of our own invention or a notion subtly acquired from someone else. We read books, journals and newspapers, watch TV and films, listen to the radio, surf the web and engage in multitudes of conversation. In the process we unwittingly appropriate and assimilate all kinds of information, ideas and attitudes with barely a regard to the extent that these dilute or embellish who we are. We are each a complex “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”. You might even ask to what extent a well-informed person is really anything other than a multi-sourced encyclopaedia.
“Oliver Wendell Holmes mentions how someone at the breakfast table sparkled greatly in conversation on certain topics. And seemed quite ignorant on others. Presently it was noticed that all the subjects he understood began with the letter A; then it was discovered that he was taking in an encyclopaedia in weekly numbers and the mystery was explained.” The London Globe, August 20, 1900 P.8 Direct Link here.
But we’re not robots, we don't simply absorb everything which is presented to us. We select, analyse, contrast, speculate, synthesise, conceptualise and all too frequently disregard or forget. This shifting pattern of absorption and reconstruction is a fundamental aspect of conscious thought. Sophisticated thought, far from being a tissue of quotations, is a multi- threaded tapestry who’s origins are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to unravel. This process of reconstruction, or more accurately - independent creative thinking - is what conventional attitudes towards plagiarism seek to elevate. But without absorption, appropriation and assimilation, what rudimentary, inarticulate, underdeveloped and uninformed things our thoughts would be. And how absurd would it be if we had to constantly reference every aspect of everything we said, made or did? Fortunately there’s no requirement upon us to do so, but in academia the situation is not quite so simple.

Students and staff who steal other people's ideas and claim these as their own, reap rewards which do not befit the meagre effort or achievement of these unworthy magpies. Indeed there is something particularly parasitic about such forms of plagiarism since they are not conducted in order to advance knowledge and understanding but to deceive in the hope of self aggrandizement or the avoidance of genuine effort and application. Parasites like thieves, are a natural consequence of environmental circumstance and opportunity. Wherever there is an advantage to be easily gained, someone or something will inevitably exploit it and it is therefore necessary, in such circumstances, to create boundaries or procedures to militate against abuse.

In academia the standard solution to plagiarism is a "zero tolerance" attitude where punishments are severe and the rules are narrowly defined and explicitly stated. The requirement is that all references be clearly cited and sources fully attributed according to "Vancouver" or "Harvard" or whatever referencing system is in favour. Deviation from these rules can have severe consequences and even minor mistakes often result in penalties. Such rules are necessary to ensure that all new and original thoughts and ideas are fairly encouraged and rewarded. However, as with all systems of regulation and constraint, it simply forces abusers to be more cunning and the gatekeepers to be more obsessive about correct procedure. James Atherton has discussed this very problem on his blog “On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing”. In particular he raises the tendency among examiners to overemphasise correct referencing. Fortunately, professor Atherton shrewdly recognises the real issue at hand:
“…in the final analysis it does not matter whether or not they [students] can attribute an idea to Bernstein, Bloom or Bruner, Pavlov, Piaget or Poppleton, any more than it matters whether a gardener can say who made his/her spade. It does matter what they do with it; whether they can use the essence of that idea to inform their practice.”Atherton, J. 2009 Blog: On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing, 3 April Direct link here. accessed 25 October 2009.
There's a software application often used by academic institutions to detect plagiarism called Turnitin. You simply paste a section of the suspect text into a box and Turnitin searches through a vast catalogue of scholarly information, references and online essays etc in a manner very similar to Google. As a method of detecting plagiarism it's an extremely useful tool and a powerful deterrent to would-be plagiarists. But this is in many ways typical of the wrong-headed attitude of academia: regulating students rather than supporting them. Far better than a plagiarism detector would be a reference organiser/maker: a software application that takes an essay and accurately attributes each quotation to its original source. I'll wager that this will happen in the not too distant future but, for the moment, the best students have access to is Bibme.

The issue which is all too often missed or subtly ignored in cases of plagiarism is whether the material stolen is in any way substantive in relation to its new context (ie: does the plagiarized material bring about an improvement which would be otherwise unlikely?). If it does, then the accusation of deception is hard, if not impossible, to counter. However if the plagiarism is trivial then, I believe, we should be gracious enough to ignore it. This is why we can easily forgive William Shakespeare or Robert Burns or Bob Dylan for the many acts of plagiarism they perpetrated. For the most part, these acts were insignificant in comparison with the vast quantity and/or quality of their output. This demonstrates the often concealed ambiguity at the heart of plagiarism. Generally speaking, plagiarism is condoned so long as its extent or quality is not in any way substantive. Or, as my mum said to me when I was a child “It’s okay to copy other people, so long as you do it better!”

But academia can’t deal with such ambiguities. If cheating is not seen to be regulated and disciplined at every level then the floodgates would surely open to all manner of abuse. And so the argument goes. Unfortunately, as with every regulation instituted in order to deter the abuse of opportunity - whether it's checking-in at an airport, watching an avant-garde film, working with children, taking photos at the swimming pool or writing an academic essay - we all have to be careful that our intentions are clear and, if necessary, prove that our age, qualifications or agenda are appropriate. Such are the insidious consequences of social regulation.

If such academic constraints were extended to fine art education, this would certainly make a mockery of the freedoms we expect of fine art practice. As it is, academia could learn a lot from the ways that the art of the past century has transformed our understanding of appropriation, recombination and contextual transformation. Despite this, art students - like all other students - must still follow the same rules of attribution when it comes to the writing of essays and dissertations etc. Even I, as a Masters student in the 1990s, had to carefully reference the tissue of quotations I compiled as part of my master's thesis on the subject of appropriation. If I'd had more confidence at the time, I’d have strung together the entire essay with as few of my own words as possible. In 2007 Jonathan Lethem did exactly this (here), with supreme skill and authority, which just goes to show how powerful plagiarism can be, when done with intelligence, comprehensive research and the confidence to know that there’s a genuine and important point to be made.

Recently I had another idea on the on the subject of plagiarism, which is to re-attribute fragments of Roland Barthes' entire essay "The Death of the Author" through HTML thus:
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning (the "message" of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” etc.
Hover your mouse over the text. Each hypertext link takes you to a webpage where the identical linked phrase can be found, but in an entirely different context. It's a simple idea, but a big job, and I could do with a hand to complete it. So if you like the idea, feel free to collaborate or, if you prefer, to steal!

Homage to RM and IHF, Jim Hamlyn, 2006. Pastel on Ingres paper

*1: "Originality is the art of concealing your sources." This quote, which is often falsely attributed to Einstein (as I have done above), was actually coined by Benjamin Franklin.


Since writing the above I've come across several excellent resources on the same subject which you can find below:

"Cut-and Paste Is a Skill, Too" By Jason Johnson The Washington Post, Sunday, March 25, 2007

Larry Lessig on "Laws that Choke Creativity" Video on

"If I Was a Master Thief" by Imaginary Boundaries, 2010. This is the final part of a group of 3 brilliant essays on the subject which reference much that I have also referred to, and much besides.

Brian Pickings also posted a great extract of a letter by Mark Twain to Helen Keller on the subject of plagiarism that echoes some of the points that I have made above.