Thinking art

“In everyday life, we often make comments about what might be considered beautiful and or ugly. Such things as simple tools and natural phenomena are objects of such aesthetic judgments: a chair, a tea set, a sunset or a sunflower. Especially in our contact with art, we are quick to state our preferences. Some people enjoy Bach while others prefer The Beatles. There are those who regard Joseph Beuys as a pioneer of modern art, while others do not even consider his “work” as art. Art critics discuss why a certain work of art, a movie or a novel, a theatrical performance or a piece of music, is regarded a failure or a success. In all these aesthetic judgments we try to convince others of what art really is or should be. In this sense, our daily lives are filled with the questions that are central to the philosophy of art, or aesthetics.”

Antoon Van Den Braembussche, Thinking Art

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How to render conversation analysis style transcriptions in LaTeX

UPDATE: I’ve now found there is a better way to do this, which I’ve documented here.

A large part of my research is going to involve conversation analysis, which has a rather beautiful transcription style developed by the late Gail Jefferson to indicate pauses, overlaps, and prosodic features of speech in text.

There are a few LaTeX packages out there for transcription, notably Gareth Walker’s ‘convtran’ latex styles. However, they’re not specifically developed for CA-style transcription, and don’t feel flexible enough for the idiosyncracies of many CA practitioners.

So, without knowing a great deal about LaTeX (or CA for that matter), I spent some time working through a transcript from Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in Conversation Analysis (pp. 57-102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Here’s a image version from page 78:

Here’s how I figured that in LaTeX:

     & D: &  0:h (I k-)= \\
     & A: &  =Dz  that  make any sense  to  you?  \\
     & C: &  Mn mh. I don' even know who she is.  \\
     & A: &  She's that's, the Sister Kerrida, \hspace{.3mm} who, \\
     & D: &  \hspace{76mm}\raisebox{0pt}[0pt][0pt]{ \raisebox{2.5mm}{[}}'hhh  \\
     & D: &  Oh \underline{that's} the one you to:ld me you bou:ght.= \\
     & C: &  \hspace{2mm}\raisebox{0pt}[0pt][0pt]{ \raisebox{2.5mm}{[}} Oh-- \hspace{42mm}\raisebox{0pt}[0pt][0pt]{             \raisebox{2mm}{\lceil}} \\
     & A: &  \hspace{60.2mm}\raisebox{0pt}[0pt][0pt]{ \raisebox{3.1mm}{\lfloor}}\underline{Ye:h} \\
\caption{ Evaluation of a new artwork from (JS:I. -1) \cite[p.78]{Pomerantz1984} .}

Here’s the result, which I think is perfectly adequate for my needs, and now I know how to do it, shouldn’t take too long to replicate for other transcriptions:

I had to make a few changes to the document environment to get this to work, including:

  • \usepackage[T1]{fontenc}

    to make sure that the double dashes — were intrepreted as a long dash while in the texttt environment.

  • I also had to do

    to rename the “Table” to “Datum” – because I’m only using the table for formatting (shades of html positioning 1990’s style).

  • \usepackage{caption}

    to suppress caption printing where I wanted the datum printed without a legend (using


    instead of



The above example is designed to break into a full page centre-positioned spread from a two-column article layout, so those directives are probably not relevant to using it in the flow of text or in two-columns, but I found the (texttt) fixed width font (which, because of the evenly spaced letters, seems to make it easier to read the transcription as a timed movement from left to right) was too large to fit into one column without making it unreadably small.

I hope this is useful to someone. If I find a better way of doing this (with matrices and avm as I’ve been advised), I’ll update this post. Any pointers are also much appreciated as I think I’m going to be doing a lot more of this in the next few years.

There are other horrors in here, and it was a really annoying way to spend a day, but this method seems to get me as far as I need to go right now.

Many thanks to Chris Howes for holding my hand through this.

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The Audio BNC

I’m sitting in my office overlooking Mile End listening to a 20 year-old recording of two people sitting in their kitchen, chatting over the sound of BBC Radio 3 about their friends, their weekend, what’s on TV, and about how prim and proper Swiss people are.

It feels like being magically transported back to 1993, when the British National Corpus recruited 124 men and women of balanced ages and demographically assigned social classes and asked them to carry around tape recorders to capture the conversations they had with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers every day.

Over 700 hours of conversation were recorded and painstakingly transcribed and annotated to enable researchers to analyse an immense corpus of naturalistic language data (still representing only 10% of the total data in the BNC, mostly comprised of written books and journals and transcribed broadcasts). All this data has been used as a primary resource by computational linguists, natural language researchers, sociologists and all kinds of researchers measuring their models of language learning and production against the empirical evidence.

However, for the most part, only the text transcriptions of this data rather than the audio itself have been easily accessible to researchers until very recently. In the last year, the Oxford Phonetics Lab has produced a British National Corpus Spoken Audio Sampler, after digitising, cataloguing and analysing the mountain of audio casettes that were hidden away in the British Library Sound Archive. They are soon going to make the entire “Audio BNC” available online to anyone who wants to listen to the original recordings on which so much research has been based, and the director Professor John Coleman kindly made selected recordings available to me as a beta tester.

Using Matthew Purver’s SCoRE BNC search tool, I’ve been able to do a full-text search of the Audio BNC, and find naturalistic examples of conversations on specific topics (I’m looking for people talking about art, design, fashion, architecture, or otherwise engaging in aesthetic discussions), and then just dip into their lives at those specific moments. It is fascinating. The sense of omnipotence is almost intoxicating, especially because sitting here, listening and reading along with the original 1990’s transcriptions, I get a strong sense how much has changed in terms of the knowledge production tools available to researchers since then.

The text transcriptions I’m reading are full of instances in which the transcriber says the speech is <unclear>, where references and names of things being referred to are omitted. Especially as I’m looking for people talking about art, I’ve found that almost all of the names of artists, musicians or other cultural references made by people in conversation are labelled <unclear> – understandably as how can the transcriber be expected to have a familiarity with relatively obscure painters from Swiss art history? With just a few contextual references, Google and Wikipedia make it trivial to identify about 90% of these <unclear> instances. Similarly, pressing my android phone to my headphone speakers and running Shazam, I’m able to identify what music they’re listening to on the radio in their kitchen while they chat.

One of the most powerful things about the Audio BNC being released today is the opportunity to apply contemporary search and analysis tools to finding instances of naturalistic conversation from a huge range of contexts and situations involving different professional, social demographic and cultural groups, and then drop in and listen to what’s going on. Having pored over the transcriptions of these people’s speech, it’s a fantastic revelation to hear their accents, intonations, and get a sense of the detail of how they do the work of ‘being ordinary’ in the privacy of their homes and intimate relationships, then in public, then at the office.

It’s the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience, and it feels like sitting in front of a new telescope, suddenly able to inspect in great detail specific areas of a previously vague and undifferentiated view of a distant galaxy.

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Mapping Situationisms (part 1)

Graffiti on a Copenhagen City Map mural in a courtyard off Nørrebrogade.

On 7th-10th May 2009, the Undoing The City festival was held in Copenhagen, consisting of discussions, walks, screenings, talks, performances, street actions and exchanges between artists and activists from around the world with the shared aim to “make the city a common space”.

The 'Street Party' in progress, photo: Sigrid Nygaard in

The festival came to public attention when, during a post-festival street action, a group equipped with a sound system, ladders, paint and ropes barricaded themselves into Hyskenstraede, just off one of Copenhagen’s main shopping streets, and as police stood by, some sub-groups danced and partied while others watched, snapping photos on their mobile phones while others torched cars, smashed shop windows, and covered every surface of the street in colourful, Situationist-inspired graffiti slogans.

Photo by Milla Villa Kulla:

Almost immediately, newspapers and TV reports spread the story and war-zone-like images world-wide, thousands of people diverted from their shopping trips to snap photos of the damage, uploading hundreds of photos to social media sites and writing about the event and ensuing controversies about the funding of the festival and its political supporters.

Google image search for Hyskenstræde, April 2012

Three years later, the impact of this event is still very visible in how the street is represented online. Alongside images of shops and products, images taken by passers-by, shoppers, journalists and bloggers still form a prominent visual trace of those events.

Nørrebro Åben By map: Jakob Jakobsen

The following day, artist Jakob Jakobsen led a two hour workshop: Nørrebro Åben By (Nørrebro Open City) during which participants walked with GPS devices and paper print-outs of out-of-copyright topographic street maps of the area. The aim of the workshop was to survey and draw-in the peaceful courtyards and urban gardens that were increasingly being gated and privatised as the Nørrebro neighbourhood underwent a rapid gentrification process, and then upload them to OpenStreetMap, a “wiki world map” based on a repository of user-collected copy-left geodata.

“We held a party that doesn’t exist. And we left some traces that existed –for some”

Os der Ikke Findes (We who do not exist)

After three days of intense media debates about “riots”, three communiques from self-proclaimed party organisers appeared on the Internet, reacting to some of the immediate criticisms about the “heteronormativitiy” of street action and property damage – the idea, expressed at discussions following the event that those actions in themselves are both gendered and class-determined, in effect luxuries of ‘political’ expression exclusively accesible to those who least fear the possible consequences. The communiques also expressed a kind of gleeful eroticism in the occupation and temporary transformation of an urban space:

“The traces are rough. They are proof of that we have had sex up one street, down Stroeget, through the market. They run fifty meters down an infinite city that does not exist, but is owned by someone else”

John Pløger draws on the organisers reference to Foucault’s concept of “Heteratopia” to describe their use of a “presence aesthetic” of sensation, emotion and perception brought about through “the eventalisation of a temporary urban space” (Pløger, 2009, pp. 864), to create a representation of the heterotopic “multiplicity of uses and use-values” of a specific urban space. He argues that this representation is intended to inspire a multiplicity of interpretations and uses of an otherwise highly commercialised shopping street. Ironically, he also points out how this representation of the city could be seen to appeal to Copenhagen’s countercultural tourist trade.

Photo: Scanpix from

Walking down Hyskenstraede the day after the riots, the profusion of tourists taking photos and milling around the shops supported this analysis. Like parts of “Fristaden Christiania”, a legally distinct neighbourhood of Copenhagen built on an ex-military base, squatted in the 1970’s and the site for significant counter-cultural and drug-related activity, the graffiti and the excitement of entering an area bearing the ‘traces’ of transgressive behaviour drew a huge amount of attention from tourists and locals alike.

Photo: Niels Hougaard - from

The staff in Natuzzi, a luxury furniture dealer that had been one of the most enthusiastically vandalised of Hyskenstraede’s shops were perpexed by the fact that despite the damage, and having had one of their sofas burned in the street, they had experienced the most successful day of trading so far that year. They pointed out several long, expensive beige sofas daubed with vivid blue streaks of spray paint and explained that they had sold all the graffiti-damaged stock almost as soon as they opened that morning. The discerning furniture-buyers of Copenhagen were presumably sensitive to the enahnced value of a sofa that had seen authentic political action, not to mention that the electric blue did go rather well with the beige leather.

Before and After the mapping workshop.

Though less mediagenic than the graffiti and broken glass that decorated Hyskenstraede for a few days, Jakobsen’s one-off Nørrebro Åben By workshop also left traces in the city, inscribed in the geographical data that represents the neighbourhood on OpenStreetMap. These traces, constituted by magnetic alignments of bits and bytes on networked computer media, downloaded onto navigational devices, integrated into mapping systems or printed as copyright-free maps have, arguably, become a far more persistent and widespread expression of the heterotopic ideals apparently espoused by the Os der Ikke Findes street party.

Nørrebro on OpenStreetMap, April 2012

This snapshot of the OpenStreetMap showing the same area of Nørrebro taken in in April 2012 shows how much more complex and detailed the user-generated map of the neighbourhood has become, still showing the tiny gardens and passageways mapped during the Nørrebro Åben By workshop in May 2009. Zooming out shows that the presence of these inner courtyards as mapped spaces in the city are a distinctive feature of this neighbourhood. Nearby areas have far fewer of these kinds of spaces, and maps of the area created using commercial geodata from Google Maps have none of these idiosyncratic features:

Nørrebro on Google Maps, April 2012

These two representations of the city: the traces, photographs, news items, blog posts and online media left by the street party on the one hand, and the quiescent accumulation of user-generated geodata on the other are useful starting points for an analytical account of how representations of the city, and struggles over its uses and use-values have adapted to the advent of networked ubiquitous user-generated online media and geographical information systems.


Pløger, J. Presence-experiences—the eventalisation of urban space Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2010, 28, 848-866

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Dialogue as a Site for Aesthetic Practice

Rachel Oxley reminded me about this Quorum seminar at Queen Mary’s Drama Department. It was a fascinatingly rigorous conversational fail.


Here’s the invitation:

Dialogue as a Site for Aesthetic Practice

In this practice-based session Frank and Martin will continue their ongoing series of encounters exploring the possibilities of conversation as a staging of discursive practice.

This Quorum promises to be of particular interest to all those interested in the articulation between practice and discourse, and looking at alternative and/or practice-based ways of approaching theory.

After the session we will be going for dinner at the Greedy Cow. Please RSVP by end Tuesday if you would like to join us so we can get an idea of numbers.

Frank Bock is an independent artist and psychotherapist. He was a founder member of the Featherstonehaughs Dance Company and worked with them from 1987 to 1998. With Simon Vincenzi, he was co-creator and director of Bock and Vincenzi, a project-based company that created six productions. From 1999-2007 Bock and Vincenzi researched and developed a body of work under the title ‘invisible dances’, in which memory, communication, death and disappearance were recurring themes. From 2008-2001 he worked as Creative Associate with the Cholmondleys Dance Company. He has also worked with Graeme Miller, Wendy Houstoun, Miranda Pennell, Bobby Baker and Rosemary Lee. Since 2006 Frank has practised as a psychotherapist, working in private practice, and with MIND as an assessor and clinical supervisor.

Dr Martin Hargreaves is the editor of Dance Theatre Journal and leads the MA Dance Theatre: The Body in Performance at Trinity Laban. His research interests lie between hysteria and boredom, and his current practice centres around the reconstruction and reimagining of seminal performance works from the 1960s.

About 25 people sat in the ‘rehearsal room’ in the Arts building at queen mary, which is a standard seminar-format non-space with whiteboards, a ceiling projector, and full of schoolroom tables – flattened to the wall to make room for an improvised semi-circle of seats with about 4 sparsely populated rows of spectators. The table at the back of the room had an assortment of snacks, wine and juice, and a small video camera set up on a photography tripod pointing towards the two conversationalists. They sat facing each other, oriented at roughly 10 degree angles to the audience, looking rather uncomfortable until people stopped milling about and Quorum convener Rachel Gomme introduced them both and kicked off the 45 minute conversation.

I describe all this in detail because it’s hard to put across how comprehensively the specific context and set-up of the room, the premise and the practical features of the setting seemed to undermine any semblance of conversation that would be recognisable as such from a pragmatic or interactionist perspective. I’m using the words ‘fail’ and ‘undermine’ here without meaning to give them the perjorative force they imply. Both Frank Bock and Martin Hargreaves explained the possibility or even the inevitability of them failing to have a conversation in front of the audience as an intentional part of the event.

The most obvious fail started with a long awkward silence after Rachel’s introduction, which was recognisable as a dramatic device that built tension between an expectant audience and two present but silent performers. The intensity of this interaction between audience and performers was palpable as people laughed (with release) when the two finally began a highly contrived (in form, if not in content) debate on the subject of the situation, its awkwardness and what it means to have a conversation with each other as research.

The content of this discourse seemed immediately at odds with the form it took. They talked about how the dynamics of conversation thrived on misunderstanding, but their slow talk and clear projection seemed to mitigate strongly against mishearing. Alongside meta-commentary from both of them about their emotional reactions to the situation and senses of self-consciousness, Both continually asserted that the conversation was between the two of them, not involving the ‘audience’, as they called us. However, their explanations and the people, places and things they referred to were continually explained in full – names and sirnames of common acquiantances and events spelled out in a way that would have been completely unnecessary if the two of them had been having a more naturalistic interaction.

I looked around at other people in the room repeatedly, and this performed discourse seemed to be engaging them. Some listened attentively, eyes front, some smiled or made notes. I had a particularly loud piece of paper on which I took notes and I could almost feel the ripple of awareness spread around me marking each noisy note. I could certainly hear – almost feel – other people doing the same.

The conversationalists gestures were very muted, their orientation towards each other and the audience hardly changed at all during the entire 45 minutes. As the seminar progressed, Martin Hargreaves began talking about the idea of conversation as an artwork that “has no object other than itself”, and talked about this as part of his artistic practice of non-documentation (while pointing out the video camera documenting this event from the back of the room). Frank Bock responded to Martin Hargreaves’ professional-status-talk by directly raising the supposed fact of their equality in this situation, even stressing that a non-hierarchical relationship existed between the two of them and the other people in the room.

Although on some level this is true, the assertion of equality seemed completely at odds with the epistemological hierarchy implicit in the set-up of the room, the orientation of the auidence, and the intentional construction of the situation. But by now this was becoming a familiar trope in this performed conversation: statements, assertions or refutations at odds with the apparent processes and activities being played out in front of us.

Frank Bock followed up his assertions of equality by bringing up his own professional role as a therapist “I’m still the therapist”… “only you’re not paying me”. A further extended meta-commentary followed about their respective conversational roles (Martin Hargreaves as a teacher, Frank Bock as a therapist) and to what extent they were performing them here. In a very polite, performative and roundabout way, they did seem to be asserting their own epistemological authority in relation to one another, culminating with another non-non-statement by Martin Hargreaves: “I’m trying not to deliver a lecture to you”, delivered at the end of something that sounded very much like an authoritative lecture.

During this exchange, Frank Bock came up with a nice turn of phrase describing wanting to ‘fall into a conversation’, but having a sense of ‘heldness’ in relation to the audience. He then began to break down the fluency of his talk, which had previously been marked by contemplative pauses, ponderous diction and an absence of umming and errring. Again, this was thematised in the content of his talk, “speaking from a place with no words”, “groping for the right word”. Martin Hargreaves, who had got a big laugh from the audience in relation to an off-the-cuff sexual innuendo about flirtation and seduction, pursued that line, fishing for similar responses, and then thematising that by stating (again, counter-intuitively) that he was aware of trying not to play for laughs.

At this point I started to lose interest, the dynamics seemed somehow established, and I noticed that several audience members were now playing with their phones. Note taking had ceased, no more noisy scribbling was happening, and notebooks were closed on laps. People around me seemed distracted and fidgety. I began playing with my phone too. Then I remembered to listen in to their conversation again, which I had tuned out in my distraction.

I heared them referring to people I didn’t know about by first names, and talking in less distinct voices, overlapping more, gesturing, with shorter pauses between speaker turns. They seemed to have finally relaxed (‘fallen’) into having something that looked more likeconversation, which was paradoxically marked by disinterest from a fidgeting, mobile phone thumbing and seemingly impatient audience. This was no longer directed at them, but was heating up for the two conversationalists, who seemed to be enjoying themselves by now.

Finally the fidgeting turned into overt signalling from Rachel Gomme and they slowed down towards what felt like an immanent end, meta-commenting about how they had primed this conversation with rehearsed content from prior (private) conversations, and that they would now like to ‘debrief’ about this conversation – although they might then need to ‘debrief’ about the ‘public debrief’ in private afterwards.

A sincere but somehow ambiguous round of applause sealed the end this fascinating and recursively problematic performance conversation.

I came away from the experience with a sense of bewilderment about the thinking and preparation behind the performance. How is it possible to fail to have a conversation so rigorously? Of course I’m talking about conversations in terms I would recognise from my research context, which broadly speaking, means that they should be ‘amenable to the basic tools of conversation analysis’. For example, a conversation would exhibit recognisable patterns and sequences of turn-taking, repair and other features of talk-in-interaction.

It also provided me with a profound appreciation for all the different ways we have of talking about talking in English. I’m not sure whether such a rich descriptive lexicon exists for many languages, but when I thought back to what I had witnessed, it seemed like a discourse seguaying into some repartee, followed by negotiation, then a proper chat, followed by hob-nobbing over wine. And in each of thse were another ten or twenty conversational forms, each more or less oriented to an audience, to performing a kind of epistemic struggle, improvising, joking or pontificating to each other and the audience.

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The strategy of ambiguity

I am writing this short, mostly unsubstantiated rant to help me clarify some of my first steps at reading and thinking about aesthetics and pragmatics in relation to my thesis.

One of the first questions I’m having to answer is why a theoretical abstraction such as aesthetics has anything interesting to bring to a study of the pragmatics of dialogue.

I understand ‘pragmatics’ to refer to a broad set of approaches to the study of human communication and interaction that emphasise the uses of linguistic signs as opposed to their ostensible meanings. For example, conversation analysis (CA), an observational approach to the study of talk-in-interaction involves creating highly detailed transcriptions of the utterances of people in conversation, then asking what they are doing by looking at regularities and exceptions in the organisation of pauses, overlaps, nd the contingent outcomes of their talk in building social action with others. Typically, a pragmatic approach eschews analyses based on a disembodied or decontextualised semantic analysis of what is being said, and by extension, any assumptions or inferences that might be drawn about the intentions or internal, unexpressed emotional or psychological states of the people interacting. Only observable phenomena are considered. What you see or hear, in other words, is what you get.

Aesthetics in the philosophy of art traditionally seeks to determine how we perceive, interpret and judge artworks. In most approaches to Aesthetics, it is assumed that something can be meaningfully described as art, whether by dint of specific formal or perceptual qualities, by historical or institutional conventions, or by virtue of some broader relationships it entails between people, spaces and objects. Because of the high semantic level at which many aesthetic theories operate when compared to the painstaking micro-analysis of communication in pragmatics, these approaches may seem incompatible.

However, what I am arguing here is that aesthetics and pragmatics share a linchpin concept in their uses of ambiguity as a strategy. One of the key concepts in pragmatics is the view that all communication is best understood as an effort to overcome ambiguity. The term ‘speaker-meaning’ is sometimes used to describe what is intended in the production of an utterance. Once the utterance is ‘out there’, however, its meaning to any specific listener becomes analytically ambiguous. The study of talk-in-interaction most often focuses on misunderstandings and breakdowns of communication because often it is only in those instances that any evidence of efforts made to rectify, check or correct the ambiguity becomes observable.

The strategy of ambiguity in aesthetics is a longer and more tortuous story. Aesthetics in the sense outlined above arguably begins with Hume’s and Kant’s epistemological questioning of perception and cognition, and has often returned to a central question of defining art. Although articulating the necessary or sufficient conditions for something to be called art has become a philosophically scorched-earth, it is one of the most enduring and widely engaged-in problems in the field, and is one of the few issues in aesthetics likely to be discussed in a daily newspaper or in everyday conversations about art.

Paul Oskar Kirstellar’s 1951 paper “The Modern System of the Arts” investigated the taxonomy of ‘fine art’ as a distinct set of practices including sculpture and painting but not, for example, basket weaving. This article is often cited as one of the first explanations for the 18th Century formation of the institutions of art and the figure of the artist as an autonomous practice enacted by an individual genius, distinct from the patronage of the church. Kristellar’s explanation that the expanding mercantile cultures of European imperialism shaped the role and the commodity status of the artwork, whether accurate or not, paved the way for a critical re-evaluation of the artwork and the artist as social constructions. For example, critic Arthur Danto’s concept of ‘The Artworld’ (1964) and subsequently George Dickie’s “Institutional Theory of Art” (1969) describes art as a specific set of institutional relationships that determine and regulate the boundaries of what is considered to be art.

These aesthetic theories have a useful explanatory function for describing how, arguably starting with Duchamp, a core activity of artists in this historical/cultural context has been to challenge the boundaries of what can be considered art. The ambiguity of the socially determined status of the artwork is seen as a means of questioning the social institutions that can confer this status. By revealing the ambiguity or arbitrariness of the linguistic/behavioural norms that inculcate the assignment of the art status, by extension artists and their artworks call into question other socially assigned statuses. Since what Lucy Lippard has described as the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ in the late 60s, contemporary art practices have purposefully manifested a deliberate ambiguity as to the status of their artworks. For example, Warhol’s re-use of pop-cultural artefacts is a direct play on this ambiguity, teasing out the use-value, symbolic and ritual values of brand identities, alongside their ‘special status’ as art objects. Warhol saw the art status as especially useful in that it enabled the oscillation of function and value between the artworks’ statuses and multiple value systems.

Similar uses of ambiguity may have been a feature of, for example, the Baroque trompe l’oeil. However, this recent iteration of ambiguity as a strategy in art seems crucial to an account of how contemporary aesthetic theories and practices position themselves as ‘critical’ or ‘experimental’.

Allan Kaprow’s happenings, John Cage’s compositions, Yvonne Rainer’s street choreographies, all play on the ambiguity of their functions and interpretations as a form of reflexive ontological destabilisation. They intentionally call into question their status as artworks as a component of their expressive or explanatory gesture. The way Kaprow’s happenings unfolded, without a clear beginning or end was central to their power to call into question and into aesthetic/political discourse the activities that occurred before and after the period of their ‘happening’. Cage’s compositions use noise and silence to question institutions of listening. Rainer’s dances problematise normative interpretations of bodily movement.

This destabilisation of art-status is still central to practices of what Pierre Bourdieu describes ‘critical intellectual’, those that question:

“in Aristotle’s sense, notions or theses with which people argue, but over which they do not argue”.

For example, artists such as Sol Lewitt began working with artworks mediated as instructions to be enacted by participants, introducing a further layer of ambiguity as to the relationship between the conceptual author of the artwork and the indexical link between the painter’s hand, brush and wall. Practices such as Art and Language, or the Artists Placement Group in the 70s and 80s, recognising the new epistemic priority of language and interaction in art, extended the logic of dematerialisation of the artwork and its critical functions respectively to focusing on the linguistic means of art’s social production as material, and to its broader institutional relations. Situationist, Mail-art, Neoist, participatory/community art, installation, interventionist and networked art practices have further extended what is often referred to as the dissolution of art into everyday life by applying this status-critique to litigious questions of authorship, revealing the contradictions of legally assigned moral rights to works, the limits of acceptable behavioural and representational norms, and the reflexive, critical refractions of meaning made manifest by the distribution of artworks through systems of governmental or commercial communication.

Alongside visual art and participatory/performance art practices that foregrounded the destabilisation of art and other institutions as linguistically constructed, critical/epic theatre thematised the pragmatics of everyday communication on stage. Brecht’s halting, grating dramatic dialogues are almost faithful transcriptions of the naturalistic fragmentation of discourse in conversation. The way they eschew the conventional theatricality of stage-speak by highlighting the gaps, disjunctures, misunderstandings and half-spoken modes of everyday talk elicits a kind of vertigo response to the ambiguity at the heart of everyday language and interaction. Adorno argues that pedagogical function of Brecht’s plays are to take this vertigo home with them and use it as critical standpoint from which broader social constructions such as political and ideological absurdities.

More recently, artists such as Tino Sehgal have experimented with deploying human interaction as artistic material, introducing performative devices which he and his producer Asad Raza refer to as ‘conceits’ that manipulate face to face communication in specific ways. For example, in his piece “This Progress” in the New York Guggehneim museum, Sehgal empied the gallery of its existing collections, and employed a large group participants to deploy a few specific timed conceits to lead gallery visitors through a series of otherwise impromptu interactions. At one point in the exhibition, Raza describes the visitors approaching a single-person-width corridor, intended as a transition-point between one conversational guide and another. In preparations for the show, after struggling to negotiate the interactional complexity of inviting the visitor to pass through in front of the participant, which invariably led to an unpredictable confusion of politeness, Sehgal found that if they instructed the participant leading the visitors to make a very small, specific gesture, standing adjacent to the entrance, arms by sides, and offering a palm-up forearm gesture, visitors would generally allow themselves to be waved through. This simple gesture is only one in a library of interactional devices, deployed in context-dependent ways in Sehgal’s ‘interactional’ artwork, that treads a fine line between orchestrated and improvised movement and dialogue.

In this context the status-ambiguity of the interaction in which participants and gallery visitors are engaged becomes embedded in the way they talk to each other. A conversation about a gallery visitor’s experience, which in everyday talk might have a certain set of conversational dynamics and characteristics may be modified by unusual conditions (for example, if it is considered and treated as an authored artwork) as it is performed. Although the question of whether Sehgal’s work counts as art is not interesting for a professional aesthetic enquiry, this purposeful fostering of the art-status-ambiguity of human interaction itself makes his practice a tractable subject for interactional research. If pragmatics sees meaning as embedded in the uses of things, then what can we find out about a conversation or an interaction when it is used as art?

Even asking this kind of question seems ridiculous without the specific historical and contextual understanding of ambiguity in art briefly outlined above, and it may turn out that this research in the pragmatics of aesthetics finds no sufficiently solid ground or tractable objects from which to launch an analysis. However, reading Harvey Sacks’ (one of the founders of Conversation Analysis) 1973 paper “On the preferences for agreement and contiguity in sequences in conversation”, there are some striking contemporaneous parallels with Lucy Lippard’s ‘dematerialisation of the art object’.

In this paper, Sacks continually refers to the conversational devices he observes such as conversational turns, sequences of utterances, and even the affirmative token Yeah as conversational ‘objects’. He refers to the complex patterns he finds in talk as ‘machinery’, for example, the “machinery for dealing with misunderstanding” and other “technically interesting objects” or “apparatus” that exhibit “fully formal and methodic potential”. In this way Sacks’ analytic practice transforms ‘materialises’ language as an object of study.

As a deliberate epistemological break from the dominant sociological theories and formal linguistic approaches of the time, Sacks sought ways to materialise language and human communication in order to apply empirical methods to its study. Central to that effort was a recognition of the fundamental ambiguity of human communication, and a commitment to gathering evidence of failures in communication to show how people work to overcome that ambiguity. In the same intellectual climate, art practices that had traditionally ascribed artistic meaning to the objects they produced in relation to traditions and aesthetic theories began to adopt increasingly linguistic or interactional forms and contexts, seeking to build ambiguity into the social material from which their work was made as a deliberate critical strategy.

The strategy of ambiguity Read More »

Creating a drupal module

It’s amazing – I’ve worked on dozens of Drupal projects (as far back as 4.7) as a PM, and never actually built a module myself. Wow. Now I’m going to have to learn!



Howto: block function

  • name it: give it a lowercase_underscore type name for module file name and function prefixes (make sure it’s not an existing theme name)
  • create folder and module file sites/all/modules/module_name/module_name.module
  • create file
  • add module @file comment description
  • add a help hook: module_name_help function (returns text and breaks)
  • if it’s a block hook, add module_name_block_info (describe it to Drupal) : info, cache etc.
  • add content functions (get things from db. etc)
  • if it’s a block module: do a block view
    • use a switch($delta) – you might want more blocks later in the same module
    • do access checks – on content retrieval functions
    • do the db grab function to get stuff in a result
    • load up the $items array with a foreach loop
    • if it’s empty – return an apology
    • otherwise: pass data (as $items array) through ot the template function – choosing a format (lists etc… or whatever)
    • return the block

Configuration form

  • Impement a hook_menu function (module_name_menu) – to create a configuration form for the module
    • do not t(translate) it (automatically translated by drupal) – pass it an array of title, description, page callback (drupal_get_form), page arguments (current_posts_form – see below), access arguments and type.
    • Then return items.
  • now do the current_posts_form
    • use #variables and check the forms api reference for element attributes you can set.
    • variable_get(thing, def.val) to get/set default persistent variable (indexed on form name)
    • system_settings_form calls Drupal’s form api to do the work. (you don’t have to create a submit button… although we could if we wanted)
  • now do any necessary data validation
    • use &$form_state to capture and keep $_POST variables during form process
    • use ifs to validate values from the $form_state array


Permissions for custom pages

  • create module_name_permission hook
  • create private page callback hook
  • add $display variable to module_name_contents() function
    • this will enable block or page view

create page (private) view

  • use private function call for module_name_page hook
  • load items into array with module_name_contents hook (+display variable ‘page’)
  • add a ‘if no data’ option & return the page array
  • else, return page array *with double underscore after theme tag*
  • eg: item_list__module_name (this enables specific theming options by telling Drupal it’s a theme hook suggestion)

Notes on function names

  • private: _module_name_functionname
  • public: module_name_functionname
  • always check your function name isn’t the same as a hook name
  • if you’re implementing a hook: module_name_hookname
  • NB: page callbacks (very specific to module) are a good candidate for private


Creating a module action

  • first define the action using hook_actions_info
  • then create action functions module_name_description_of_action_action
  • optional form definition

Creating a drupal module Read More »

Ispconfig2 + drupal + git + staging setup

The aim is to create a staging setup which will allow continuous deployment for Drupal, which is something of a challenge in itself.

In this setup, I create three drupal installations (production, staging and development), all under git version control.

  • Here, I’m using the dev site as the canonical origin.
  • The staging site updates from that dev origin
  • The production site updates from the staging site.



Git + Drupal basic setup


Git Basics

Git + Drupal


  • Set up a new site in ispconfig with:
    • PHP (not safe_mode)
    • Mysql databases
    • ssh access (preferable)
    • a new admin user for each site with ssh access for all accounts (preferable – not sure how to do this without that)
    • create a database for each site, note down dbname, usernames, passwords etc.

ssh to the web server

$dev-user sudo apt-get install git-core
$dev-user cd ~/ 
$dev-user git init
$dev-user git clone fooproject
$dev-user git checkout 7.0
$dev-user '''git remote rename origin drupal'''

Problem: recommends ‘git remote rename origin drupal’ which throws an “error: Unknown subcommand: rename”. I found advice here: to edit .git/config (at the project root) and just make the name change manually. That worked fine.

$dev-user git remote add origin path/to/your/central/git/repo
$dev-user git checkout -b fooproject

on ISPconfig, I had to move the ‘fooproject’ directory to the pre-determined server path :web – but that worked fine, and I think Git is still happy with where the files are…

I also had to edit the .htaccess file (Ispconfig doesn’t gives us a 500 server error). I replaced the existing .htaccess with:

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>  
RewriteEngine on
#RewriteBase /  
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f  
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d  
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ /index.php?q=$1 [L,QSA]  
#RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} !=/favicon.ico

Then, I cloned the sites to the staging site, making sure to retain the error log directory used by ispconfig by default:

$staging-user mv ~/web/error ~/ (move the error log dir out of the way)
$staging-user rm -rf ~/web 
$staging-user  git clone /path/to/production/repos web
$staging-user mv ~/error web/

I then repeated the process for the ‘production’ site, making sure it gets cloned from the staging site, not directly from the dev site.

Then set up and configure sites . At least that was easy!

Now we try it out, by installing a module:

$dev-user cd ~/web/sites/all/modules/
$dev-user wget
$dev-uesr tar -xvf views-7.x-3.0-beta3.tar.gz
$dev-user rm views-7.x-3.0-beta3.tar.gz
$dev-user git add views
$dev-user git commit -m "added views 3.0 beta"

then login again as the staging user

$staging-user git pull

And it should just pull down views nicely.

That’s our git repositories and Drupal instances set up, now we have to think about Staging.

Staging Setup

Staging is a significant issue with drupal



drush install poormanscron

Ispconfig2 + drupal + git + staging setup Read More »

The pragmatics of showing off your new artwork to friends

In Anita Pomerantz’s canonical paper on preference for agreement and disagreement with assessments in conversation I found two fascinating examples of precisely the phenomena I was looking for in the ways people talk about art.

Pomerantz uses the example below to demonstrate what she calls ‘second-assessment
productions: agreement dispreferred’, by which she means that when someone
produces a self-deprecating assessment in conversation, it invites an agreement
or a disagreement with that self-deprecation – but generally a disagreement is

As is often the case with this kind of conversational analysis, the evidence
for one action or response being preferred is found by observing what happens
when the ‘dispreferred’ action or response is supplied. In Pomerantz’s
examples of assessments, ‘dispreferred’ conversational responses, often
contradictions and disagreements, are characterised by delays, pauses, and
other avoidances or ‘softenings’ of the dispreferred response. It is in this
context that Pomerantz produces the example below, as evidence for structure of
how conversational participants tend to withhold what she calls ‘coparticipant
criticism’ – basically, worming their way around insulting each other’s

However, this extract also shows some of the features of aesthetic
conversations that I intuitively shaped into my research question about how the
criteria for an assessment become relevant referents for sub-asessements in an
aesthetic evaluation.

Pomerantz identifies this entire exchange only as a series of deferrment turns,
in which D’s (dispreferred) critical assessment is delayed, softened or
otherwise minimised.

With my question about the criteria for judgement being negotiated in mind,
these exchanges seem to support the idea that a feature of these deferrments of
dispreferred responses is that they include a negotiation of the referents of
the assessments they precede:

In the exchange highlighted above, A offers up a print for assessment, D gives
a positive assessment (softening an immanent critical assessment, Pomerantz
suggests), and C interrupts, identifying one criterion for judgement: the
question of authorship. A, C and D then negotiate claims to knowledge of this
referent (the author of the print).

Two further criteria are then raised by A – the assessment that the print is
monetarily valuable, which is met with a silence (which Pomerantz sees as an
implicit marker for a dispreferred second assessment – in this case, a
disagreement). A then raises the rarity of the print “only a hundred of’m”,
which D acknowledges after with ‘Hrm’ after a further pause.

Pomerantz observes in this paper that acknowledgements of prior assessments do
not imply claims of access to a referent: by acknowledging A’s claim of the
rarity and value of the piece without agreeing or disagreeing, D acknowledges
only the claim, but (marked by a further pause) does not participate in
claiming to have that knowledge.

E then requests a clarification of the referent being assessed: “Which picture
is that.”, then interrupts D’s negative assessment, seemingly to raise a
further criterion for assessment of the print: the spelling of the word ‘Life’
in the print that A points out. E then seems to claim that “That’s all I wd
loo(hh)k fo(h)” in the print.

Finally, D delivers a critical assessment, raising several further criteria:

  • that this print belongs to a type of art that can be more or less
    ‘realistic’, and that D assesses this to be ‘less realistic’. This criterion is coupled with an assessment that D likes the ‘more realistic’ of this ‘type of art’
  • That the print belongs to a “magazine advertisement” type, which can be
    more or less “great”, and D implys an assessment that this print is less great.

I am provisionally thinking of aesthetic judgements as assessment sequences in
cases where the referent of the assessment is evidently ambiguous.

Although Pomerantz is only concerned with the overall structures of preference
in agreement and disagreement with assessments, this extract does seem to bear
out some of the assumptions in my research question: namely that in aesthetic
judgements, conversational participants seem to offer up candidates for
assessment criteria along with their assessments.

Other examples of assessment sequences in Pomerantz’s text that deal with more
self-evident referents do not seem to exhibit this characteristic, suggesting
that it may be useful to look at aesthetic judgements as a special case of
conversational interaction.

Another assumption in my research question is that as conversational
participants offer up candidate criteria as referents for their assessments,
the opportunity for ‘topical drift’ is extended. The discussion of one referent
may lead to another, and yet another, potentially replacing the subject of an
initial assessment with a sequence of second and third assessments of different
referents altogether.

In a note on a section about ‘upgrades’ (described in her paper as strong
agreements with assessments on sequential grounds), Pomerantz picks out an
exception to the upgrades she finds in the corpus that reinforce prior
assessments of the same referent: upgrades that also slightly modify the
referent, and then reinforce it:

In this extract A assesses as ‘nice’ the way two things appear together. B
upgrades the assessment to ‘lovely’, but generalises the referent to the two
things – not their appearance together.

Pomerantz identifies this topic shift as part of a softening of a later
dispreferred disagreement with an assessment: B eventually emphasises the
niceness being that the two pieces are separate – contradicting A’s initial

Once again, in the interim between assessment and dispreferred disagreement, B
offers up the colours of the pieces (“blue en grey, en white”) as candidate
criteria for assessment, which A agrees with in this sequence.

Again, this seems to bear out some of the intuitions in my research question –
not only that a component of the conversational pragmatics of aesthetic
judgements is the proffering of multiple criteria for assessment, but also that
in this process, there is an opportunity for a shift in the referent being

The qualification for these intitutions that I can take from Pomerantz’s paper
is that this proffering of alternate candidate criteria may be seen as a
specific case of deferring or delaying a dispreferred second assessment in a

The pragmatics of showing off your new artwork to friends Read More »