Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, motivation by Paul Butzi on October 18, 2009


For a while now, I’ve been playing with Twitter. I’ve been doing several things with it, and none of them are directly related to promoting anything, so I’d guess that at first blush, I am violating some unwritten laws about how Twitter is supposed to be used. Nevertheless, it’s been (so far) an interesting experiment. If you think Twitter is worthless, bear with me for a moment, because this is only very tangentially about Twitter, and mostly about expectation and outcome and why we make art.

Just about the time I started playing with Twitter, there was a rash of apps for the iPhone which were ‘sound environment’ apps. This apps purported to transport you to far away places – tranquil places – by playing awesomely peaceful and restful sounds. Recordings of loons on distant, remote lakes, for example. Or a rain forest, during the rain. I think you get the general idea. When I read about these apps, I was, I admit, both fascinated and appalled. There’s something about the idea of it that rankles me – the idea that rather than going to restful, tranquil places (or better yet, making the place you are a restful, tranquil place), you import that place into your life for just a few seconds by listening to a recording on your cell phone. I thought it was weird that rather than arrange your life so that you got some tranquility, you’d buy a $5 app for your phone to serve as an intermediary.

And, in that sort of ‘bang the rocks together and see what happens’ way I do things, I started tweeting about what I heard when I stood still and listened. It was about actually having the experience, and the tweet was a sort of marker of having had the experience of listening, without needing an iPhone app to help me out. I think the first ‘sound report’ tweet was in May. By the end of May, I was marking those tweets with ‘sound report’ in them.

Just recently, I thought “Suppose I started recording the sounds, instead of just writing about them in little haiku-like snatches?” So I bought a sound recorder, and I’ve been experimenting with recording things. I thought about putting these recordings on the web, where other people could listen to them. And then I realized I was building something not very dissimilar to the iPhone app that I thought was wacky, and which motivated me to start taking time to listen. It took me about six months to complete this cycle. I guess I’m a slow learner.

I’ve said before that I tend to use photography as a way of figuring things out. In some sense, I’ve been using Twitter and the sound reports as a way to do the same sort of thing: pay attention, record what I experience, and then later be able to go back and see if there are patterns.

Despite my coming around to the point of building something I dislike, there’s something interesting going on in there. I’m not sure what it is – some strange thing with the act of sharing prompting the act of paying close attention. There’s a difference between recording the sounds you hear (either in words or as an audio recording) and sharing that record, and never listening yourself but always experiencing things through some intermediary.

There is an art cycle that goes something like this: notice something, make a record of that something, share that record. That’s the ‘making art’ part of the cycle. And then after you share the record, the cycle continues with the ‘audience’ part of the cycle – people see the photo, watch the play, whatever – and they’re changed somehow by the experience. One of the things I take away from my ‘sound report’ experience is that the medium of sharing matters a lot. There’s a world of difference between making and sharing an audio recording, and sitting on a rock listening, and then writing a short haiku like tweet about what you heard. That difference is not just on the audience side, it’s also on the ‘making art’ side.

Maybe I should stop photographing and start painting.

3 Responses

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  1. Bryan Willman said, on October 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Maybe, but “pleasent rain sounds” and “actual listening” can easily be as different as looking at Art and buying something to cover a hole in your wall.

    I’ve own CDs with titles like “rainstorm in the rain forrest” – and their use was to make covering background noise when I couldn’t be anywhere but at a desk in an office at a company you know well… The reason people don’t make their lives tranquil is that don’t get that option – which is why mp3 players sell so well.

    Photography and painting are not exclusive. Not only can you do both, you can combine them in a single work.

  2. julie said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:41 am

    There’s a huge difference between reading a tweet that describes what someone can actually hear, where they are, at that particular moment – or listening to a recording of something. When you tweeted those descriptions of sounds it felt more authentic because I knew you were experiencing it at that actual time so I could almost put myself in your shoes and imagine what you could see and smell, to go along with those sounds. It’s been a lovely little interjection to all the usual mince that goes flying past on my twitter stream.

    As for the sharing part of art… I’m still trying to figure that one out. I’m trying to consider the motivations behind it rather than “look at me, aren’t i fantastic” because that just doesn’t seem right. If you get anywhere with it, please let us know…

  3. Jeremy said, on October 19, 2009 at 3:34 am

    Try watching — and listening — to this TedTalk.

    The “tranquil places” thing is in there, and fascinating.

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